Sharks didn't choke, but is this still the end of an era?

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sharksgetswept.jpgThe San Jose Sharks didn’t lose in the first round this year. This wasn’t a situation in which they lost to a Cinderella team, either. Instead it was the No. 2 seed Chicago Blackhawks, a squad that barely fell short of taking the top seed from them in the regular season.

The higher level of “respectability” in this year’s series defeat doesn’t change the fact that the Sharks likely feel the same way they did last year: empty.

After losing to the Anaheim Ducks, some people thought that it was time for the regular season juggernaut to clean house. Aside from rotating the captaincy and acquiring sniper Dany Heatley, the team still revolved around Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle and Evgeni Nabokov this season. My guess is that things will be very, very different next year. How different remains to be seen, though.

Let’s take a look at the rubble heap that is the San Jose Sharks 2009-10 campaign.

The Sharks did not choke

You’ll certainly get a whiff of how odorous I often find the “choking” talk in my wrap-up of Montreal’s Game 4 goose egg, but I’d like to make it clear that the Sharks lacked bounces, timely goals and luck. (Not heart. Not the ability to administer the Heimlich Maneuver.)

If you take out the Game 4 empty-net goal, Chicago beat San Jose by 3-2 twice, 2-1 once and 4-2 once. In other words, the Sharks lost maybe one game “convincingly.” They out-shot the Blackhawks in three out of four games and even put 40+ pucks on net twice. In the first round, the Sharks ran into a great goalie in Craig Anderson but their depth and talent allowed them to grind out four wins. San Jose beat Detroit with considerable haste, although the Red Wings made that 4-1 series interesting at times. Unfortunately, Antti Niemi’s Finnish brand of goaltending proved to make the difference in the much-more-evenly-matched Western Conference finals.

Both the Sharks and Blackhawks pushed a lot of their metaphorical Stanley Cup poker chips to the middle of the table this season and someone had to lose. Let me say this, though: this series sure didn’t feel like a sweep. Hockey’s one of professional sports’ most luck-ridden sports; it even makes the Miracle on Ice a little easier to understand.

After looking back at the year that was, let’s take a quick glance at the Sharks’ very murky future after the jump.


Thumbnail image for thebigpavelski.jpgSo, what now?

There’s no doubt in my mind that this Sharks team will be significantly different next season. We’ll discuss the gritty salary cap details tomorrow, but just look at their most significant free agents: Nabokov, Marleau and Rob Blake are the biggest unrestricted names while Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi could be offer sheet bait as restricted ones.

Let’s not forget the possibility of trades, either. The much-maligned Thornton could be a casualty. Boyle might have Tampa Bay Lightning housecleaning flashbacks and want out. Oh, and Heatley … we all know how particular he is.

Heck, there’s no guarantee that GM Doug Wilson or head coach Todd McLellan will be back, either.

As I mentioned, expect some interesting salary cap/free agency related bits tomorrow and what could be a wildly different Sharks team during the 10-11 season. To at least some extent, we witnessed a disappointing end to what could have been a golden era in the Bay Area. Even if no one choked.

Video: Drouin equalizes, but Rust strikes again 30 seconds later

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Bryan Rust is really having himself a series.

After opening the scoring in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, Rust took matters into his own hands after Jonathan Drouin evened the score for Tampa Bay, notching his second goal of the game — just 30 seconds after Drouin scored — to put Pittsburgh back out in front, 2-1.

Before digging into the Rust goal (posted above), let’s take a moment to appreciate Drouin’s snipe, one that whizzed by Pittsburgh netminder Matt Murray:

Now, back to Rust.

With that second goal he’s now racked up eight points for the playoffs, just three back of the 11 he put up over the course of the entire regular season. The former Notre Dame standout has become a major storyline, and now sits tied with Patric Hornqvist for the team lead in even-strength playoff goals.

Not bad for a guy that spent a fair chunk of the year in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, eh?

Video: Rust opens scoring in Game 7

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What an Eastern Conference Final for Bryan Rust.

Rust scored his second goal of the series — and third point in as many games — to open the scoring on Friday night, giving the Penguins a 1-0 lead over the Lighting at Consol.

After scoring just 11 points during the regular season, Rust — in just his second season at the NHL level — now has seven points in 16 playoff games, and has emerged as a vital bottom-six contributor in the process.

Chris Kunitz and Evgeni Malkin notched assists on Rust’s goal, which came early in the second period. The Pens out-shot the Bolts 8-5 in the first period, but were unable to get one past Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Oh, and speaking of Kunitz, he’s also produced extremely well in this series — he now has six points in his last five games.

Shock of Lightning: Stamkos will play

Steven Stamkos
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He’s in.

As if Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final couldn’t get any more dramatic, it has — Tampa Bay captain Steve Stamkos, who hasn’t played since Mar. 31, will make his playoff debut against the Penguins tonight.

Stamkos underwent vascular surgery in early April to correct a blood clotting issue, and has remained on blood thinners ever since. While there’s been no confirmation he’s off medication, he did tell Sportsnet he’d be able to return to the lineup once he was.

More:

Stamkos reiterated that he’s still on the same prescription of blood thinners he was given earlier this month. He takes a 12-hour dosage, twice a day, and it has been suggested to him that once he is cleared to stop taking the medication, Stamkos conceivably could return to the Lightning lineup almost immediately.

That’s why I’m trying to stay in shape,” he said.

Per NHL.com, Stamkos took the warmup and participated in line rushes centering Ondrej Palat and Ryan Callahan.

It’s been exactly eight weeks since Stamkos played his last game. At the time of his diagnosis, the Lightning said his timetable for recovery was 1-3 months.

To say his return will be a boost is a major understatement. Aside from the emotional factor, Stamkos led the Bolts in goals this year, with 36, and would presumably spark a power play that’s gone just 2-for-12 in the series.

 

Drama builds as Stamkos takes Game 7 warmup

NEWARK, NJ - FEBRUARY 26:  Steven Stamkos #91 of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on February 26, 2016 in Newark, New Jersey. The Lightning shutout the Devils 4-0.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Steve Stamkos took the team bus to tonight’s Eastern Conference Game 7 in Pittsburgh. As TVA noted, it was the first time he’s arrived early for a game in these playoffs.

In his pregame presser, Bolts head coach Jon Cooper refused to answer any questions about Stamkos’ availability.

And then Stamkos took the warmup.

As such, the drama surrounding Tampa Bay’s captain has reached an all-time high. Stamkos, who’s been out of the lineup since early April due to blood clots, looks as though he’s on the verge of an emotional comeback as the Lightning try to win an ECF Game 7 — on the road — for a second consecutive season.

“If Stamkos is in the lineup, it’s our best foot forward,” Cooper said. “If he’s not in the lineup, it’s because he wasn’t eligible to play.”

No word if No. 91 is still on the blood thinning medication he’s been taking since undergoing vascular surgery on Apr. 4.

Stay tuned…