Stumbling Sharks staring history in the face

Stumbling Sharks staring history in the face
April 26, 2014, 10:45 pm
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Now, with a 3-0 lead in games reduced to 3-2 and Game 6 in Los Angeles Monday night, the Sharks are now the ones facing serious questions.
Ray Ratto

The noted highland poet Todd McLellan dismissed Saturday night’s tedious performance by the San Jose Sharks with a terse, “Tonight was red rotten. That’s simply put.”

No, it was precisely put, as it turns out. The Sharks came home with thoughts of finishing the Los Angeles Kings in their heads, and ended up done, both sides, medium-well before the end of the first period. The final score of 3-0, Kings, was indicative mostly of the fact that the Kings didn’t score as much as they could have.

[RELATED: Instant Replay: Kings blank Sharks, force Game 6}

And now, with a 3-0 lead in games reduced to 3-2 and Game 6 in Los Angeles Monday night, the Sharks are now the ones facing serious questions, starting with the unknowable (“Is this one of those blown-opportunity things you guys used to do so often?”) and closing with the more specific (“So we know you’re going with Alex Stalock in goal in Game 6, but will you have Marc-Edouard Vlasic?”) inquiries.

McLellan didn’t answer the Stalock-for-Antti Niemi question directly, but it seems painfully evident that the goalie switch after 22 seconds of the second period is now going to be a permanent condition. Niemi, like his compatriots in front of him, looked slow on the first goal by Tyler Toffoli off a two-man break, was outnumbered on the second by Anze Kopitar, and completely buffaloed on the third by Jeff Carter. Often goalies can be pulled to send a message to the rest of the team about their shoddy workmanship, but in this case it was a message that very definitely included Niemi as well.

Vlasic, though, is an entirely different matter. The Sharks’ best defenseman was clocked by Jarret Stoll behind and off to the side of the San Jose goal with 5:51 left in the first period and did not play another moment.

“He didn’t return after the blow to the head from Stoll,” McLellan said before remembering to use hockey code; “It’s an upper body injury.” But McLellan said he had no idea whether Vlasic could come back for Game 6, and he said with that unmistakable “I doubt it” tone in his voice.

Between Vlasic going down, Niemi going out and the other 18 players barely turning up, the Sharks are suddenly up three games to two and looking like they’re the two rather than the three.

And that leads to the next irksome inquiry – what does this bode for a seventh game Wednesday night?

In 175 series that went 3-0, only eight have reached a seventh game, with three of them (Toronto ’42, New York Islanders ’75 and Philadelphia ’10) ending with the 0-3 team winning outright. The Sharks are one of the other five (Boston ’39, Toronto ’45, Philadelphia ’75 and Vancouver ’11), scaring themselves silly against Detroit before surviving three years ago.

But that’s more of the cart-before-horse stuff so many of us engaged in when the Sharks were up 2-0 and then 3-0. The problem is, as McLellan likes to say, “the patient starts to show symptoms before he gets sick,” and as he pointed out Saturday night, San Jose hasn’t scored the first goal since Game 1.

In addition, despite controlling Games 1 and 2, they didn’t really win the metric battles, and the difference between Niemi and Kings goalie Jonathan Quick has swung from Niemi untested and Quick bombarded to Niemi chased and Quick dominating his area. The last one was entirely predictable, but the slow turning of the series was not. After games with 9, 9, 7 and 9 goals, the first lopsided low-scoring game went to the team with the better goalie. Quick now has eight Stanley Cup shutouts, and this was his fourth against the Sharks.

As has been discussed often, momentum generally ends with each game, but a goalie change and a lost top-grade defenseman puts the Sharks in more of a hole than the math would suggest. It is not too deep a hole, and coming out with greater purpose and spirit would seem a minimum standard.

But a series that was done is done no more. This isn’t like those Sharks teams that lost to inferior competition a decade ago, but their path to the next round involves a fair amount of reverse gear. And sometimes, though rarely, the transmission seizes up entirely.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for