In mathematics, it represents an emirp, as its reverse (97) is also a prime number. In music, the number of cumulative weeks Elvis Presley spent at #1 on the Billboard charts. It’s also the atomic number of gold.
Alas, it also denotes the number of days it took a golden season by San Jose to come crashing down into oblivion, punctuated by a third-period collapse in game five of their Western Conference Quarterfinals series that resulted in a 3-1 loss, ushering them officially out of the playoffs.
“It stinks,” Sharks’ captain Joe Thornton said about his teams’ 4-1 series loss. “We had a good group of guys and you want to keep playing. This is the best time of year. Hats off to the Blues, they played great. But it’s a terrible feeling right now.”
Seventy-nine days earlier, San Jose was flying high with a 28-14-6 record, tops in the Pacific division. The offense, although not as dominant as in years’ past, was nevertheless still ranked in the top ten, and the defense was similarly top-ten caliber. When on the man advantage, the Sharks were man-eaters; short a man, they were minnows. All in all, the team appeared well-rounded enough to overcome its shortcomings, and with a little luck, make another deep run in the playoff — perhaps even, for the first time in their history, to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Seventy-nine days later, the dream was over.
San Jose stumbled across the finish line with a tepid 14-15-4 finish, at one point falling to 9th overall in the West before recovering and winning their last four games of the regular season. The finishing kick allowed the Sharks to capture the 7th seed and gave the team momentum going into their series with the Blues, who had swept their way to the 2nd seed with a fantastic 49-22-11 regular season. However, the Blues stubbed their toes a tad at the end of the year and with the slight momentum shift for both teams, coupled with the tremendous edge in playoff experience enjoyed by San Jose, some were calling this series the one most likely to see an upset.
Instead, it was the Sharks that were upset — at the way their offense and special teams performed during this series.
“It’s brutal,” defenseman Dan Boyle admitted. “All the hard work in the summer, all the 82 games, the playoffs, preseason, practices — it sucks and it’s very frustrating. It’s not a good feeling.” Logan Couture was introspective: “I blame myself and some of the big guys who were expected to score because we didn’t.” Coach Todd McLellan was philosophical, saying “We’re a team, we’re an organization. We went down as a team, not as individuals.”
Early during game five, the Sharks accomplished something they hadn’t done since game one: scoring first. At 19:19 of the first period, after Torrey Mitchell’s shot dribbled wide of goaltender Brian Elliott, Daniel Winnik won the puck battle behind the net, wheeled, and then found Joe Thornton cruising down the slot. Thornton peeled to the right of Elliott, then shot the puck into the net for the 1-0 lead.
That lead held up until the third period, when in a span of just 45 seconds, a close game completely turned in favor of the Blues. Scott Nichol and Jamie Langenbrunner raced into the Sharks’ zone on a 2-2 break. Nichol shot the puck from outside the right circle as Langenbrunner charged the net. San Jose goaltender Antti Niemi made the save, but the rebound popped right in front and Langenbrunner knocked it into the net, tying the score. And then, at 12:15, Alex Pietrangelo’s wrister was deflected out of midair and past Niemi for the sudden, shocking 2-1 St. Louis lead. “The fans carried us,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock explained, crediting them for giving the team the energy they needed to vanquish the Sharks. “They won the game for us in the third.”
After the go-ahead goal, St. Louis’ stifling defense and the outstanding goaltending of Elliott took over, stopping everything the Sharks threw at them. With the crowd roaring, Elliott’s heroics included a sequence with 2:30 left that featured a Couture drive from the slot, followed by a Pavelski shot from in close, both turned aside. Andy McDonald’s empty-netter with 39 seconds left sealed the game, and with it, the Sharks’ fate with respect to the 2011-12 season.
Todd McLellan said he sensed the momentum was turning, moments before the two critical third-period goals. “Right before they scored their couple of goals, I felt we were on our heels a little bit,” he said. “We were going to defend, rather than go after them, and we didn’t do that all night. We addressed it on the bench, and a minute later we’re down by a goal.”
On the opposite bench, Jamie Langenbrunner said, “”It was a frustrating two periods, obviously we wanted to come out and jump to the lead. We had to push them out of the game. We just stuck with it.”
Speaking wistfully, McLellan continued: “It’s always disappointing when you lose. It doesn’t matter what round you’re in. With losses, you can go to the final game and lose in Game 7, and then you dissect everything and somebody’s at fault for this or that.”
The Blues now await the winner of the Phoenix/Chicago series. The Sharks, on the other hand, await potentially major changes this offseason.