SAN JOSE, Calif. - After two straight trips to the Western Conference final, the San Jose Sharks now have to come to grips with their earliest playoff exit during a run of eight straight post-season trips.
The Sharks concluded an inconsistent season by losing the final four games of their first-round series against the Blues capped by a 2-1 Game 5 defeat on Saturday night in St. Louis.
"This team is too good to be going home right now after five playoff games," forward Logan Couture said after the game. "It's tough."
The Sharks, who have the second-best record in the NHL the past eight seasons, failed to play up that level for most of this past campaign, especially against the Blues, who won eight of nine overall against San Jose this season.
The same problems that doomed the Sharks during a stretch when they lost 19 of 29 games that almost cost them a playoff berth, were starkly evident against the faster and deeper Blues.
The league's second-worst penalty unit allowed six power-play goals in 18 chances, including three in a pivotal Game 3 loss. The third and fourth lines failed to generate much offence. Goaltender Antti Niemi struggled to control rebounds at times, which proved pivotal on the game-tying goal in the clincher.
"It's a terrible feeling," captain Joe Thornton said. "It was a battle all year. We had to win our last four games just to get into the post-season. There was nothing smooth sailing about this year. We'd like a better fate, but unfortunately we don't."
Instead the team with the second-best record in the NHL the past eight seasons is still looking for its first Stanley Cup trip.
The Sharks only previous first-round loss during this run of eight straight playoff trips came when they were knocked out in the first round by Anaheim in six games 2009 after posing the NHL's best regular-season record.
In fact, the five-game loss was the first ever in the first round for the Sharks, making this their shortest post-season run in history.
"It's brutal," defenceman Dan Boyle said. "All the hard work in the summer, all the 82 games, the playoffs, the preseason, the practices. It's very frustrating. It's not a good feeling."
It's one that has become an annual occurrence for the Sharks, who have been unable to break through with a talented core led by Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Boyle and Ryane Clowe.
Thornton excelled with two goals, three assists and strong all-around play all series, he had little help. Marleau and Pavelski, two the team's 30-goal scorers in the regular season failed to record a single point in the five games.
"It's unacceptable," said Pavelski, who had often been a post-season star for San Jose. "The chances, the ice time you get, you have to produce. That's the bottom line. You want to be out there at that time and you want the puck. I had the chances. It just didn't happen. It can't happen like that. It's extremely difficult because I had a chance to be a difference maker."
Couture, the other 30-goal man, scored his only goal late in the closing seconds of a Game 3 loss at home. Marty Havlat scored twice in the opener and then went silent except for untimely trips to the penalty box.
Clowe, the other top six forward, did not score a goal in the series either. In fact, only four forwards got goals the entire series with rookie Andrew Desjardins getting one in the opener.
Coach Todd McLellan gave credit to St. Louis' record-setting defence that allowed only 155 goals in an 82-game regular season, but also knew he needed more from his star players.
"They are stifling," he said. "They play such a good checking game. They give you absolutely nothing. Then on the other hand, when you only have four forwards that hit the score sheet in a five-game series, odds are you're not winning and that's what it ended up being."
While the struggle to score might not have been a surprise, a smaller aspect that hurt the Sharks was more unusual. The Sharks were the second best faceoff team in the regular season at 53.3 per cent and are tops in the NHL in McLellan's four years as coach.
But the Sharks lost the faceoff battle to the Blues and because of that often struggled to set up in the offensive zone. In fact, the series-clinching goal was set up after Patrik Berglund beat Marleau on a draw in San Jose's end, setting up David Perron's tip of Alex Pietrangelo's point shot that gave the Blues a 2-1 win.
"The one thing that we had for four years straight is you could count on faceoffs," McLellan said. "You could count on winning them and executing them. As the series wore on we weren't winning those battles. We were winning some of the less important faceoffs but we were losing the critical ones. ... It sounds like a small thing, it's a big thing for a team."
And it's a big reason why the Sharks are heading home.