Ratto: Sharks' season ends nobly, but harshly

May 25, 2011, 5:06 am
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Ray Ratto
CSNCalifornia.comVANCOUVER, British Columbia -- It is the story that keeps telling itself -- the San Jose Sharks, playing their best game a game or two too late.

So it goes, again. Having wedged their backs into the soft plaster behind them, they played one of their finest games in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final, but for a play here, a bounce there, a call somewhere else, they still flew home Tuesday night wearing a 3-2 double overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks.

Indeed, the winning goal by Kevin Bieksa tells you everything you need to know about the evils of waiting until the last minute to get your ducks aligned. You never know when fate will jam a finger in your eye.
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Bieksa drove a puck to the front of the net that was deflected to the wall and back to fellow defenseman Alexander Edler, who tried to dump the puck behind the net. The puck, though, struck a stanchion and rebounded back to Bieksa at the O in Stanley Cup Playoffs logo inside the blue line, and his shot knuckled past a startled Antti Niemi at 10:18 of the overtime.

I didn't see it at all until the last two or three meters, Niemi said, explaining how he followed the players as they headed behind the net where Edlers pass was headed. It was one of the weirdest goals I've ever given up, sure. It took a bounce, and I lost it, and I never saw it until right at the end when it was past me. I just saw it going by.

And with it, another Miss Congeniality medal for the team that is becoming known for them.

While it is still too early to work at the postmortems and the is-the-window-closing arguments, Logan Couture put it succinctly.

It sucks, it really does, he said. Maybe we did deserve better. We did play good in a couple of games in this series, but it doesnt matter. Theyre going on, and were not, and that sucks.

The problem, of course, is that a couple of games are not five, and it took at least that many for the Sharks to beat the Canucks. Yes, the job was made more difficult by Joe Thorntons separated shoulder, and Ryane Clowes chronic shoulder problem, and a lot of other nagging annoyances that are the hallmark of a team that plays 107 hockey games in seven months.

But as it was a year ago, the superior team won, the right result was achieved. San Jose could have changed it, because no fate in this game is pre-ordained, but they left too much to the whims of an elimination game, and will reflect on being fourth best for the second time in succession.

I thought they competed extremely hard, head coach Todd McLellan said. I'll tell them (when we get back) I thought they were a better team than we were in the series. We started to show it in the end of the series, but ...
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But thats too late, again. And the recriminations of another missed opportunity can begin on Thursday, when the Sharks have scheduled their season autopsy.

Tuesdays game was San Joses to win despite Thorntons injury, which allowed him to play 32 minutes but not to materially affect the game in any dramatic way. San Jose played hard and with purpose most of the evening, and for the first time in the series could say they were foiled by a bit of bad luck, as in:

The Bieksa pinball goal.

An erroneous icing call on Dan Boyle with 29 seconds left, when his puck clearance hit Daniel Sedins shoulder, which should have negated the icing call that brought the puck back into the zone for a faceoff which led to Ryan Keslers tying goal 13 seconds from the end of regulation.

Then again, the Canucks were victimized a bit on Patrick Marleaus game-tying power play goal at 9:57 of the second. Bieksa was sent to the box for high-sticking instead of Mason Raymond, the actual miscreant, and as a result Keith Ballard, a much less accomplished defenseman, and not Bieksa was on the ice when Marleau scored.

But this isnt about referees or cruel stanchions or injuries or anything else. Ultimately, the Sharks season ended before they thought it should have because they didnt get consistent work game in and game out even though they knew it was the only thing keeping them from glory.

And maybe even if they had that, Vancouver still would have won. The Canucks are smart, fast, deep, chippy when needed, brilliant puck-controllers and an all-around tough out under any circumstances.

But the right team won gets hollow after awhile, and McLellan made sure he had a few more swings to take before he left the podium for the spring and summer.

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First of all, we're going to get healthy, he said, referring specifically to Thornton and Clowe but with others on a long list of the impaired. We're going to rest over the summer, we're going to get our butts back to training camp where we're going to work ourselves right back to this spot again, and we'll make good on it next time.

We've learned a lot of lessons along the way. We've grown as a team. In my opinion, there's absolutely no reason why we can't be an elite team again next year, as we were the last three, four, five years. We expect to be there. Our task ahead of us is to get our asses back here in the conference finals and make good on it.

Theyll need to be more consistently Game 5-ish to do so, though. They werent unlucky as much as they were inefficient, and inadequately iron-minded. It is a lesson that will have to be driven into them even harder if, as McLellan says, they are to get our asses back here and make good on it.
Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.