Sharks couldn't reach 'top of the mountain' in finals, but it wasn't from lack of leadership

ByCraig Custance ESPN logo
Monday, June 13, 2016

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The first sign of just how much this loss hurt the San Jose Sharks didn't come from the players. It came from their wives.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman hadn't even handed the Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby yet when the sound of crying began echoing in the hallways of the SAP Center.

A group of San Jose players' wives, wearing the familiar Sharks names on the backs of their T-shirts, huddled outside the Sharks' dressing room. They had gutted out win after win along with their husbands throughout the long, grueling tournament that is the Stanley Cup playoffs. Until now. The Penguins had just ended San Jose's season with a 3-1 win in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals.

The emotion of the moment, of seeing their husbands fall just short of the dream for which they had all sacrificed so much -- not just during this two-month span, but their entire lives -- was overwhelming.

And so the tears flowed, because if there's a group of people in the world who understand just how badly these Sharks wanted to prove to the hockey world that everyone had judged them wrong for so long -- especially those who suggested they could never win it all -- it was their wives. They get to see the unfiltered, raw emotions that surface only within the bond and trust of a marriage.

The rest of the world sees the Sharks players with their guard up. Even on this night.

When the door to the dressing room opened after Game 6, the Sharks seemed more composed than crushed.

There were some red eyes, but it appeared to be the result of weariness rather than raw emotion. Or maybe it was from the shock that it was over so suddenly.

First, Sharks captain Joe Pavelski came out and calmly tried to explain how it felt to have a season finish in a blink.

"It just ends. You're playing every other day for a long time, you're traveling. It seems like you should keep playing," Pavelski said. "It doesn't feel like it should ever end. Then it stops the way it did. It's a tough feeling."

A moment later, Joe Thornton emerged. He put on a Sharks hat and prepared himself to bang out his obligatory postgame interview.

It took Thornton, 36, nearly 20 years to get to this point. He knows that he may never get this close again.

"It's just disappointing, but I'm just super proud of the effort the guys gave all year long," Thornton said. "It sucks. That's the bottom line. It sucks. We thought we had the team, going through the teams we did in the West. It's just tough right now."

Sharks defensemanBrent Burns used the same word, over and over. It's tough. Tough to get this far and have it end this way. Tough to put so much work into something and have it fall short. Tough not to give Thornton a better ending to a playoff run that could very well end up being the longest of his Hall of Fame-worthy career.

"He's a guy who means so much to everybody in this room. He's done so much," Burns said. "It's tough not to climb the mountain with him all the way."

They didn't reach the top of the mountain, but the Sharks put to rest the fallacy that this group didn't have what it takes to win big games in the postseason.

San Jose crushed the Los Angeles Kings in the first round, atoning for its playoff collapse in 2014. The Sharks got pushed to Game 7 against the Nashville Predators and then turned in one of the most impressive elimination-game performances ever in knocking out Nashville with a 5-0 win that was over before it even began.

Then they took out a St. Louis Blues team that had eliminated the reigning champion Chicago Blackhawks and Central Division champion Dallas Stars.

That only one of these Western contenders took the Sharks beyond six games revealed just how determined and resilient these Sharks were this spring.

After the Game 6 loss to the Penguins, San Jose coach Peter DeBoer emerged from the dressing room and started walking down the hall for one last postgame press conference.

A well-meaning fan offered some encouragement while passing the other way.

"Good job there, Pete," he said. "Nothing you can do there, bud."

If DeBoer heard him, he didn't acknowledge it. He just kept walking, holding the stat sheet from the final game of his season. Perhaps the fan was right. Maybe there was ultimately nothing DeBoer and the Sharks could do against a faster, deeper Penguins team led by the best player in the world in Sidney Crosby, the Conn Smythe winner.

Maybe DeBoer and Thornton and Pavelski and Burns and Logan Couture took this group as far as it could go.

Maybe. One thing DeBoer knows for sure is that this group erased all the misguided attempts to characterize the Sharks as choke artists lacking leadership. They didn't win it all, but they didn't collapse. They just lost. They lost to a really, really good Penguins team. As Burns liked to say throughout the series, the enemy has a say in how things turn out -- and the Penguins were a formidable opponent.

"Only one team can win. That doesn't take anything away from what those guys accomplished," DeBoer said. "I don't think anyone should ever question the leadership or the character or the will of the group of men in there. It's been misplaced for a decade. I would hope they answered some questions."

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