Around 10 o'clock on Sunday night Dan Boyle emerged from a curtained area in the visitors' dressing room at the Pepsi Center in Denver. The San Jose Sharks' All-Star defenseman was wearing a dark suit and a pained expression. Taking a seat in front of his stall, he called to mind a reluctant witness in the moments before a hostile cross-examination. "He's only going to do this once," a San Jose media-relations assistant informed reporters.
Sharks fans sure hope so.
Some 20 minutes earlier Boyle had unleashed the most thunderous cheers of the evening when his attempt to pass the puck behind his own net went terribly awry. Until that point, 51 seconds into overtime, the Sharks had dominated play to an almost comical extent, outshooting the Colorado Avalanche, their first-round playoff opponents, 51--16. San Jose, however, had been unable to get a puck past Craig Anderson, the Avs' journeyman goaltender who'd spent the evening channeling Patrick Roy.
As the puck left Boyle's stick blade, it glanced off the shaft of the stick wielded by Avs center Ryan O'Reilly. The redirected puck ricocheted off the right leg of Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov and into the net. Just like that the eighth-seeded Avalanche had a 1--0 victory and a 2--1 series lead over top seed San Jose.
"I can't believe it," said Boyle, who kept staring down at the carpet as if looking for a hole in which to hide. "I'm gonna have nightmares for sure."
More upbeat was Nabokov: "We played well. If we're going to continue to play that way, we'll be rewarded."
Yes, Evgeni, isn't it pleasant to think so? But it would be much more in keeping with the recent history of this 19-year-old franchise if the Sharks keep right on losing to a team that logic and regular-season statistics say they should be dominating. Mysteriously, yet consistently, these great whites of the regular season become dogfish in the playoffs.
Since reaching the 2004 Western Conference finals, in which they fell to Calgary in six games, the Sharks have reeled off seasons of 99, 107, 108, 117 and 113 points, never finishing lower than second in the Pacific Division. For two years running they've been the No. 1 seed in the West. Yet over the last four years they've won a meager three playoffs series, never advancing past the second round. Last year's episode of premature capitulation was more embarrassing than most. Winners of the Presidents' Trophy as the league's top regular-season squad, the Sharks were bounced in six games by the eighth-seeded Ducks, leading to a number of jokes about how the NHL's preeminent choke artists needed an Anaheim-lich maneuver.
Why should a team that looks so good on paper find itself with so much free time every spring? One theory holds that the Sharks simply lack the extra playoff gear possessed by true Cup contenders. The jump from regular- to postseason requires an exponential increase in intensity—a leap that, for whatever reason, San Jose seems unable to make. As 40-year-old captain Rob Blake has posited, the Sharks don't get any worse come springtime, they just don't get any better.
That's not for lack of shaking things up. Sharks G.M. Doug Wilson replaced coach Ron Wilson with Todd McLellan after the 2007--08 season. Following last year's crack-up the G.M. traded for hulking sniper Dany Heatley, a two-time 50-goal scorer. And intent on increasing what he refers to as the "sandpaper" quotient of his roster, Wilson also added corner-scouring, shot blocking two-way gladiators Manny Malhotra, Jed Ortmeyer and Scott Nichol, a 5'9", 178-pound superpest whom Wilson describes, admiringly, as "an absolute pr--- to play against."