ALAMEDA — After a two-month playoff run that changed the perception of the star players and a team that had been known for playoff letdowns, the reality of falling two wins short of the ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup hit the San Jose Sharks.
Instead of preparing for Game 7 on Wednesday night in Pittsburgh, the Sharks spent Monday saying their goodbyes and reflecting on the most successful season in the team’s 25-year history.
“We were planning on getting on a flight to Pittsburgh,” center Joe Thornton said. “We have such a good group. You just don’t want this thing to end. We really thought we could get this thing to Game 7 and you never know what could happen. It’s just a weird feeling that all of a sudden you’re done with hockey. It just comes to an end. You’re just disappointed that way.”
San Jose’s season ended with a 3-1 loss to the Penguins in Game 6 on Sunday night. After rolling through the Western Conference playoffs, the Sharks were unable to match up with the speedy Penguins.
Pittsburgh’s speed, depth and ability to play from ahead for almost the entire series proved too much for the Sharks to overcome. But that won’t entirely overshadow the fun they had getting to the final for the first time in franchise history.
“It’s disappointing when you lose, but this has just been a great journey,” defenseman Brent Burns said. “You earn the right to play for two months after the season and it’s just a special experience to be a part of that. Obviously you want to win. That’s what we play for. You don’t dream of losing when you’re 3 years old, you want to win.”
The Sharks had quite the bounce back after hitting what they had described as rock bottom the previous year when they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2003.
That followed a playoff collapse in 2014 when San Jose became the fourth NHL team to lose a best-of-seven series after winning the first three games in the first round against Los Angeles.
But with a new coach in Peter DeBoer and a top-flight starting goalie in Martin Jones, added depth with players such as Joel Ward, Joonas Donskoi and Paul Martin, and the usual strong play from mainstays such as Thornton, Burns, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the Sharks got back into the playoffs as the third-place team in the Pacific Division and exorcised some demons in the postseason.
“It’s a tough day because there’s so many mixed emotions,” general manager Doug Wilson said. “The one that resonates though is how proud we are of them. We shared that with them as a group, what they’ve accomplished, the work they’ve done, taking care of each other to get to this point, players, coaching staff, trainers, everybody.”
The run started with a five-game series win against the Kings, who had knocked San Jose out in seven games in both 2013 and ‘14.
The Sharks then survived a seven-game series with Nashville in the second round before winning the Western Conference final for the first time in their 25-year history in six games against St. Louis.
San Jose’s first trip to the Cup Final didn’t go as planned as the Sharks had few answers to Pittsburgh’s superior speed and struggled to generate any consistent offensive attack.
Only strong play from Jones kept the Sharks in the series and allowed them to take the Penguins to six games before faltering.
Jones posted a .932 save percentage in the series, justifying the first-round pick the Sharks gave up to acquire him last summer.
“He’s a special goalie,” Thornton said. “You saw what he did in the postseason. This guy is special. I can’t say enough good words about him. He’s the real deal that’s for sure.” The Sharks have most of their core under contract for next season. The only unrestricted free agents who dressed in the Final are forwards Nick Spaling and Dainius Zubrus; defenseman Roman Polak and backup goalie James Reimer. Forwards Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto are restricted free agents.
“We made no secret of how much we enjoyed this group,” DeBoer said. “I thought they had great chemistry. I thought they worked well together. We enjoyed being around them. I think the fact that a large number of them are back is a great sign.”