The notion of a make-or-break moment gets tossed around a ton during this time of the hockey year. Remember those alleged franchise-defining games the Canucks had against the Blackhawks in the first round? They’re already at the bottom of our collective memory hole, almost instantly forgotten in favor of Vancouver’s next contest, period or shift.
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People are great at living in the moment and even better at making the moment mean more than it ought to. However, I don’t think it qualifies as high-pitched hyperbole to say that after a collapse of Whitney Houston-esque proportions in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals against the Canucks, the San Jose Sharks have arrived at a seminal moment in the organization’s 19-season history. And the way they respond very well could dictate what GM Doug Wilson does in the weeks and months to come.
I don’t care what Sharks coach Todd McLellan said after the game about defensive deficiencies being responsible for Vancouver taking a 2-0 series lead. To anyone watching that game, the tipping point was clear — and it didn’t come until after the third goal.
Now, there’s no doubt that the Canucks going up 3-2 in the second period of Wednesday night’s game forced McLellan and his players to attempt to run-and-gun with Vancouver’s elite runners and gunners for the final frame. That clearly did not work out well for the visitors.
But the Sharks had been outplayed in more than a few of their playoff games this spring and found a way to win. Unfortunately, the rapid unravelling of San Jose enforcer Ben Eager ensured there would be no such comeback this time.
It began with Eager charging Canucks MVP Daniel Sedin late in the second period and drilling him into the boards from behind. You can debate whether the act merited more than the two-minute boarding penalty it received, but you cannot argue it didn’t push a Vancouver team that already was dominating into full-on steamroller territory.
If that wasn’t stupid enough, Eager continued to melt down at his teammates’ expense in the third period. First, he took a needless tripping penalty that led to the Canucks’ fourth goal; then, with about 150 seconds left in the final frame, Eager ran goalie Roberto Luongo, stood over him after scoring a meaningless goal and taunted him, apparently for having the gall to retain home-ice advantage in the series; and as time was about to expire (with Vancouver leading 7-3), he and Sharks agitator Scott Nichol attempted to take on the entire Canucks line that was on the ice, landing both of them 10-minute misconduct penalties.
Astonishingly, after the game McLellan said he thought Eager played within the boundaries of good sportsmanship.
“Didn’t see (Eager) cross the line at all,” McLellan said of Eager’s hit on Sedin, calling into question the coach’s vision and/or concept of lines in general. That probably explained McLellan’s otherwise inexplicable decision to keep sending Eager onto the ice and allowing his testosterone surge to cripple the team.
When Eager had a similar absence of brain activity as a member of the Thrashers this season in Toronto — sucker-punching and injuring Leafs left winger Colby Armstrong — Atlanta management instantly came to its senses and traded Eager as soon as his four-game suspension ended. If the Sharks bring him back at any point in this series, they deserve the folly that will follow.
In a small victory for reality, McLellan admitted his charges fell apart in the third.
“Yup, without a doubt,” McLellan told reporters after the game. “I’m not going to sit here and try to protect (Sharks players). We lost composure, we were frustrated … We’ve got some work to do. We’ve got some guys that need to ask themselves some questions, answer them and pull the skates a little tighter.”
The same can be said of McLellan and the entire Sharks organization. As Game 3 in San Jose looms large, they all have to ask themselves what repercussions will follow another sub-par effort and/or mental collapse. Will Wilson decide Dany Heatley has imitated an apparition of an NHLer for the last time in a teal jersey? Will Patrick Marleau be jettisoned from the only franchise he’s ever worked for? Will Joe Thornton continue to cast aside his good guy persona and turn into Northern California’s version of "Deadwood" villain Al Swearengen?
Any or all of those things could happen. This is a make-or-break moment — the make-or-break moment — for the Sharks. We’ll see whether they’re truly kings of the sea or fodder for opponents that truly understand how to seize the moment in their teeth and never let it go.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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