One of the ongoing narratives regarding the Sharks over the past several seasons is that they’ve been able to up their game against some of the top teams in the NHL, while faltering against the bottom-dwellers.
While that’s generally been the case, there’s another trend that’s just as prevalent – when the temperature gets turned up and the games have the most meaning, the Sharks can't stand the heat.
Since the start of February, the Sharks have played seven games against teams they were in direct competition with for a playoff spot – three with Vancouver, two with Calgary, and one each against Los Angeles and Winnipeg. Their overall record in those games now stands at 2-5, with both wins coming against the Canucks, after a convincing loss in Winnipeg on Tuesday night that may have very well ended their postseason hopes.
San Jose (34-28-8, 76 points) is now five points behind Calgary and Los Angeles for third place in the Pacific Division, with the Kings owning one game in hand on both the Sharks and Flames.
Just looking at the past two weeks, the Sharks played some of their better games of the season in wins over Montreal, Nashville and Pittsburgh, showing signs of putting their miserable February stretch behind them.
In the matches that mattered most, though – those so-called four-point games – they saw a 2-0 lead over Vancouver slip away at home on March 7 despite being the more rested club, and were never really in Tuesday night’s 5-2 loss in Winnipeg in what was plainly the most important game to date.
Put another way, nothing seems to have changed since the Sharks epically blew a 3-0 playoff series lead against the Kings last year, or lost Game 7 to Los Angeles in 2013. Heck, you can even go back to the 2011 playoffs when they led the Red Wings 3-0 in the second round before Detroit reeled off three straight. While the Sharks won that Game 7, their inability to end that series earlier cost them in the Western Conference Finals.
Both trends still point to that fatal flaw of weak leadership, and while Joe Pavelski seems to have embraced the role of de-facto captain and gives an honest effort on a nightly basis, the jury is still out as to whether the Sharks’ new structure changed anything at all. So far, it doesn't look like it has. That is already shaping up as something that will have to be revisited in the offseason.
Perhaps if Pavelski had been named the captain at the start of the season, the whole Joe Thornton-Doug Wilson spat never would have surfaced. The Sharks are now 0-2 since that unpleasant rift was made public.
In the meantime, the Sharks road trip will continue in Toronto on Thursday against a rare team that has just as much of an identity crisis as they do. The Sharks should be able to win that one, and they’ll probably even win a few more of their last dozen, too.
But even if they manage to climb back in the playoff race, and give meaning to the season finale on April 11 against the Kings, there's not much reason to believe they'd be able to get the job done in that sort of situation. Something is still missing, just like it has been year after year.