By Mary Walsh
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, they say. Then again, sometimes things that can kill you do, in fact, kill you, and many things that cause you no pain at all can make you stronger. Pain, loss and failure are not necessary ingredients for success, they are just common obstacles you must overcome on the road to pretty much anywhere. So what do you do with a humiliating meltdown performed at the very worst moment, on a national stage? Assuming it has not killed you, you can remember it and nurse that awful feeling until you have a chance to redeem yourself. Or not.
Friday, some Sharks shared their present thoughts with the media. It had been less than 48 hours since the team made a historically noteworthy playoff exit. As one of only four teams to give up a 3-0 series lead to be defeated in the seventh game, they will be remembered for choking in the worst way.
Todd McLellan was asked what went wrong, what lead to the loss of a series the Sharks lead by three games to none.
I spoke about this at the press conference after the game and my opinion hasn’t changed one bit. In fact, I’m a little more frustrated at this point than I was even at that point, if you can believe it. We got beat in a number of different areas. The core of their group stepped up and performed at a very high level, ours fell off a little bit and my disappointment is as much or greater now than it was at at that moment.
What added to the frustration?
Probably having the chance to go back and look at it again. It is what it is, we went and looked at it again and it just makes us more frustrated.
Joe Thornton was asked if he had any explanation for what went on in the last four games.
No. I think I’ll think about that, you know, probably until next year sometime. You know, the way we played in the first three games and then what we did in the last four, it’s mind-boggling. And I think I will lose sleep probably for the next couple of months for sure on that.
Tommy Wingels was asked if playing in World Championships next week would help get the taste of the loss out of his mouth.
It won’t do it. It’s an honor to play for them and to an extent you’re excited when you get asked but without a doubt I’d much rather be playing for a Stanley Cup still. Regardless of what happens over there the disappointment of what happened isn’t going to go away, and to be honest that’ll be on my mind the entire time.
Patrick Marleau was asked about this series as a defining moment for the Sharks.
Yeah, it’s obviously a low point for us. Like you said it’s going to be with us for a long time so we have to use that as a motivational tool to get better and to learn from it and to know that you never want to feel this way again.
Scott Hannan was asked if, after time to think about it, there were any answers to how the series came unravelled.
No, there’s not, it’s disappointing, it’s gut wrenching that this happened. We’re going to have to deal with that for a while until we can set things right and turn it around. It’s going to eat away at you all summer and all next year.
Brent Burns was asked if he had any additional thoughts after a day and a half.
I think it’s still pretty fresh. It’s still tough, you’re not really prepared for it to be over. Nothing new. Waking up today it’s tough, it’s hard to imagine what happened but it’s sure to take a long time.
Dan Boyle was asked how his last couple of days had gone.
Horrible. This is the first time I left my house since I got back after the game. It’s definitely the worst loss of my career and yeah, I’m not going to get over this for a long time. This one hurts a lot.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic was asked if this is a series worth remembering.
I mean, Boston won the Cup the year after they did what we did this year.
Did he think that humiliation motivated the Bruins?
Probably, they had something to prove. When you sweep and then get swept it’s embarrassing and hopefully we do the same.
One recurring theme in all of the locker cleanout interviews was that the loss would take a long time to get over. Will the Sharks’ disastrous 2014 playoff ousting stay with them, in a way that might be productive? How will they respond? Raffi Torres said:
We just gotta figure out what we want to do here. Do we want to be a team that lives with the past, is this going to haunt us and just do the same thing over and over again? Or are we really gonna get pissed off and come back and see what we’re really all about. You gotta have a year, you know. Yeah, we’re gonna win a lot of games next year and probably going to make the playoffs again, but at the end of the day if you don’t show up and really want it, and really want to win, it’s not going to happen.
Of course, Doug Wilson has some work to do. In cases such as these, when an otherwise competitive team falls apart in the clutch, a common response is to fire the coach. That is clearly not something Wilson is in a hurry to do, nor should he be. How do you replace one of the top coaches in the league? It would be, to say the least, a gamble. And it was another recurring theme in the interviews: the players did not blame the coach. Antti Niemi put it concisely:
He’s been a great coach obviously and we played winning hockey all the time. And we have great systems we play, the whole team followed the systems and I think we worked hard. So I think he’s been a great coach, the whole coaching staff has been great.
It is rare for players to voice criticisms of their coach, and in any case it doesn’t answer the question: would another coach get better results, at least in the short run?
To study how teams fare after this particular failure you have to work with an impossibly small sample size. In the most recent example, the Boston Bruins did not replace their coach or significantly alter their core group. They did add several significant players, so the San Jose roster may need to be bolstered. Then again, those were the Bruins, not the Sharks. When you only have four cases and only two in the last quarter century, it would be folly to think you have a pattern to follow.
The only player in this narrative not available for comment Friday was Sharks majority owner Hasso Plattner. What he will make of the situation, what he might do about it, is difficult to even guess at. Possibly the most frustrating part of this is that such humiliation only happens to the best teams. It is not humiliating unless you have a team that should have won. That is why two of those other three were able to win the Stanley Cup so soon after squandering three game leads in the playoffs. It is an awful feeling for Sharks and their fans, but at least it is proof that they are close enough to success to amplify failure into a disaster on a par with the Alamo, minus the fatalities of course.