The San Jose Sharks have a relatively impressive National Hockey League playoff history for an expansion franchise that is only 20 years old.
They’ve never won the Stanley Cup, of course, but with 14 playoff appearances in 19 seasons, the Sharks have been regular contestants for Lord Stanley’s trophy.
But because they’ve never won the Cup, they’ve faced a lot of elimination games over the years. Overall, the Sharks are 9-13 when facing elimination — this includes a lot of highs and lows for the San Jose organization when the pressure is most intense.
Early in franchise history, the Sharks showed a lot of moxie, fighting off elimination the very first time they faced it in the playoffs (1994 against the Detroit Red Wings in a first-round, Game Seven road win). Even though San Jose lost a second-round, Game Seven on the road to the Toronto Maple Leafs that same playoff season, it was clear those young Sharks had a lot of fight in them.
The same pluck was evident the next year, 1995, when San Jose again won a first-round series with a Game Seven road win (over the Calgary Flames this time). In fact, trailing the series 3-2, the Sharks won Game Six at home, too. Alas, San Jose had nothing left when they fell behind Detroit in the second round, getting swept away in four games.
It was three more years before the Sharks returned to the playoffs, and in both 1998 and 1999, they lost their only games when facing elimination: they lost Game Six at home to the Dallas Stars in 1998 and Game Six at home to the Colorado Avalanche in 1999.
Those home losses when facing elimination are the worst, simply because you hate to send the fans home for the summer on a sour note. Not being able to win an elimination game on home ice symbolizes a team just doesn’t have the heart to go along with the playoff-caliber talent.
In 2000, San Jose won another first-round, Game Seven on the road, this time against the St. Louis Blues. But they also lost a Game Five on the road to Dallas in the second round. Still, it was good to see the fortitude returned to the Sharks’ playoff bite.
However, this prowess was short-lived, as San Jose then began a seven-year stretch (over five postseasons) where they puttered out weakly the first time each year when facing elimination in the playoffs:
- In 2001, the Sharks lost a Game Six at home against the Blues;
- In 2002, San Jose succumbed in a second-round Game Seven in Colorado (made worse by the fact they also lost Game Six at home with a chance to clinch the series);
- In 2004, the Sharks made the conference finals for the first time ever, but they lost a Game Six in Calgary;
- In 2006, San Jose lost a Game Six on the road to the Edmonton Oilers. The Sharks squandered a 2-0 series lead in this matchup, after they lost a triple-overtime Game Three in Edmonton and never recovered;
- In 2007, the Sharks got shutout in a Game Six on home ice against the Red Wings. Like the previous year, San Jose crumbled after a tough loss earlier in the series.
Those five years of being unable to stave off elimination even for one game contributed to the current perception of the Sharks as playoff underachievers — especially the home losses and the inability to recover from tough losses. It became “easy” to break San Jose’s will.
The following year, 2008, represented a little restoration of the Sharks’ bite when San Jose won three games in the postseason when facing elimination. They won a first-round, Game Seven at home against Calgary, and then after falling behind 3-0 to Dallas in the second round, San Jose won Game Four on the road, won Game Five at home in overtime, and lost Game Six on the road in quadruple overtime.
It was stunning display of resolve from a team many people had started to write off regularly in the postseason.
But in both 2009 and 2010, the Sharks regressed to being a relatively easy out in the playoffs. After winning the President’s Trophy with the best regular-season record in the NHL, San Jose petered out in the first round in 2009 — sure, they won a Game Five at home to postpone their demise, but they lost Game Six meekly on the road to the Anaheim Ducks.
And last year, of course, the Sharks were swept out of the conference finals by the Chicago Blackhawks.
In 2011, San Jose has already won one elimination game — the Game Seven victory at home against Detroit in the second round — but they’ll be hard-pressed to win another tonight in Vancouver.
However, if they can win tonight? The Sharks will give themselves another chance to restore some luster to the organizational legacy of being a tough playoff opponent established so long ago.
After all, it is playoff hockey, and anything can happen.