I think there's a bit of overreaction in saying that the Sharks are gutless losers who went crying to mommy with their fins tucked between their legs. If you break down the series in terms of who carried the play, there was one absolute stinker game (Game 4), two dominant games by the Sharks (Game 2 and 5), and two games where the Sharks generally carried the play though not by as much (Game 1 and Game 3). Then there's Game 6, where the Sharks looked like world beaters for one period before brain farting for critical parts of the second and third.
In other words, there were pockets of bad play here and there and one absolute disaster of a game. Otherwise, they carried the play for the most part. To use a baseball analogy, they put plenty of runners on base but they failed to drive them home.
Now let's just theorize a little bit. If the Sharks had won Game 2 and scored more than one goal on Jonas Hiller in their strong first period of Game 6, how would this series have changed?
Of course, there were long stretches where Anaheim...well, I wouldn't say they controlled the play but they controlled the flow. That is, they prevented the Sharks from getting anything going, then they waited to counterpunch. And the Sharks had no answer for this; when they fell behind, Anaheim played prevent defense to a T. For the most part, the Sharks didn't revert back to the chicken-with-its-head-cut-off panic that we saw so often during the Ron Wilson days. However, it did still show up much more than I would have liked to see.
Slightly off topic, the injury list for this team has been revealed. We all know by now that Patrick Marleau had a sprained MCL (Pollak was reporting they may are checking to see if it's even a tear) for the last quarter of the season. What we didn't know is that Evgeni Nabokov entered the playoffs with a hip flexor and Joe Thornton has been battling a groin injury for the past two months.
This isn't it to make excuses or give passes to any of those three guys. Instead, this is all my very-longwinded exposition to get to my final point:
Blame the players all you want, but in my eyes, the coaches hold the most responsibility in blowing this series thanks to mismanaging injuries and not effectively countering Anaheim's system.
Here's how I think it all came together (or fell apart, depending on how you look at it). Midway through the season, the Sharks were hammered with injuries after a ridiculously strong start. Todd McLellan starts double-shifting Thornton and Marleau like there's no tomorrow. During this time, Thornton tweaks his groin and Marleau jacks up his knee. Marleau's knee is made much worse by a knee-on-knee hit in Phoenix. Marleau sits a few games, Thornton takes no time off.
Now, we've seen in the past that when Thornton has a groin problem, he's pretty useless out there. Flashback to the first two months of last season when Thornton took no time off for a groin problem he suffered in training camp -- it featured much of the same soft-on-the-boards/forcing-passes play that we saw in the last while. When you think about it, it makes sense. Joe's play is based on controlling the puck down low until he can generate a scoring chance via a pass or shot. Well, you need your core to protect the puck on the boards, both to generate leg strength and also to win battles on the boards. Take away the muscle strength to do that and Joe becomes soft on the boards.
As for Marleau, we all know that his game is based on speed. Take away that speed and you take away his key weapon. No wonder we didn't see any of those shorthanded breakaways that we saw so often during the first half of the season.
Ok, so let's talk about injury management. Your two top guys have injuries that hinder the way they play the game. Yet the depth of the roster is so banged up that you're forced to keep playing them -- not just playing them but double-shifting them...or are you?
At the point when the Thornton/Marleau injuries most likely occurred, the team had a comfortable lead over the bulk of the league. Doesn't it make more sense to sacrifice President's Trophy aspirations by sitting those two guys to ensure that they'll be healthy for the playoffs? Sure, that means that your team will essentially be Pavelski/Setoguchi/AHL scrubs but you have to look at the big picture. Suffering for one month to ensure a healthy playoff team just makes sense.
Perhaps the season-long injury to Torrey Mitchell and the injury to Marcel Goc got McLellan worried about his depth at center. Perhaps he thought that the team would ride this out. I think this is a situation where bad luck begets bad decisions -- had the Sharks had Mitchell and either a healthy Roenick or Goc, we probably would seen Thornton/Marleau sit for a while. But since the rest of the team was so banged up, these guys took it upon themselves to try and carry the team.
Second point on injuries: it looks like Evgeni Nabokov's hip problem had been bothering him for about two weeks. If that's the case, why not sit him for the last few games of the season, and even the series opener? Brian Boucher's been more than capable of filling in; more importantly, a hip issue affects lateral movement, and if a goalie can't move from side to side with quickness, you're going to get awful five-hole goals.
So that's the player management side of it. I also think the coaching staff is responsible for failing to adjust to Anaheim's shut-down game.
One thing I had noted several times over the past few months is that it seemed like Anaheim had the Sharks figured out. If you look at how the Ducks played the Sharks over their last three regular season games, Anaheim's system totally neutralized the Sharks. Here's how they got it done:
-They clogged up the neutral zone, eliminating any speed the Sharks had. Ultimately, they forced the Sharks to dump the puck in.
-Anaheim's strong defense often seemed prepared for this inevitability and managed to retrieve the puck prior to a Shark forechecker getting there.
-When the Sharks did recover, Anaheim had the defensive horses to block a bazillion shots and force the puck to the outside.
During my gamedays, I constantly harped that in order to break the Ducks trap (I hate using that word but that's more or less what it was), the Sharks had to have a set play where they get the red line, then dump WITH the forecheckers hitting the blueline with speed.
Theoretically, it'd play out like this: Boyle gets the puck behind Nabby, works his way up to the red line. As he's approaching the red line, Michalek and Pavelski started gunning for the blue line. If they time it right, Boyle gets the red line right before Michalek/Pavelski hit the blue line; Boyle slaps the puck in for a cross-ice dump and the forecheckers have generated enough speed in the neutral zone that they can get pass the Anaheim defense. They go in and retrieve the puck together while Clowe rushes the high slot and the defense takes their spots on the point.
Now, this would produce two effects: first is the direct dump-and-chase sequence. I hate dump and chase, but sometimes it's necessary, and against a team with Captain Elbows and Scotty Greybeard, you don't really have much of a choice. Second, if this works, it would have forced the Anaheim D to back off overloading the neutral zone as they'd have to anticipate the dump. This in turn creates more space in the neutral zone to carry the puck in, thus creating two options.
So in essence, I'm calling out the coaching staff on two things -- not looking at the big picture when dealing with injuries and not adjusting in series when Anaheim seemed to have a counter for the Sharks system. I think Todd McLellan's a great coach and I'm in no way calling for his head. I just think that this put him in an extreme circumstance and he made some wrong decisions.
Now this doesn't excuse the players for their brain-fart moments or their failure to generate enough traffic in front of Jonas Hiller. I'm going to reserve full judgment on this Sharks team until we see how Anaheim handles Detroit. The Wings may have different components and more forward depth but they play a similar style to the Sharks. If Anaheim can effectively neutralize the Detroit system, then part of it may simply be that the combination of Anaheim's defense and system is built to take care of this style of play.
In any case, it's time to let this one sit for a little bit before talking about what to do for next season. Right now, I'm leaning towards keeping Thornton and Marleau but I think Doug Wilson is smart to look at all of his options for next year.