SAN JOSE, Calif. – After going through the handshake line of an early playoff loss, an emotional Patrick Marleau stood by the San Jose bench and looked up at the crowd at the Shark Tank.
The end of another season in San Jose could be the end of an era after the Sharks were eliminated in Game 6 of the first round with a 3-1 loss to Edmonton on Saturday night.
With longtime stalwarts Marleau and Joe Thornton heading into potential free agency this summer at age 37, the Sharks could have a very different look next season.
"I'm not even really thinking about that right now," Marleau said. "There will be time to reflect on all that."
Thornton and Marleau entered the league as the top two picks in the 1997 draft and became teammates in 2005 when Boston dealt Thornton to San Jose. They have made the Sharks one of the league's top teams during their time together, getting to the Stanley Cup Final last year and making two other trips to the conference final together.
Both reached major milestones this year, with Marleau scoring his 500th career goal and Thornton recording his 1,000th assist, and still are playing at a high level.
But how long general manager Doug Wilson wants to commit to them remains a question.
"I love those guys," teammate Logan Couture said. "They play hard. If you guys only knew what they play through. The respect level that I have for those two guys is just through the roof."
After the Sharks tied the series with a 7-0 win in Game 4 and took a 3-1 lead in the second period of the next game, it looked as if talk of the future for Thornton and Marleau could wait a few more weeks.
But the Sharks allowed the Oilers to tie Game 5 with a late regulation goal and then were dominated in overtime to fall behind in the series. They fell into a 2-0 hole in the opening minutes of the second period when Edmonton scored on a pair of breakaways.
A third-period goal by Marleau breathed life back into the arena, but the comeback hopes were thwarted after Joe Pavelski hit the crossbar and the post with a backhand shot on a power play and then Connor McDavid scored an empty-net goal in the final second to seal the 3-1 win.
"There's nothing you can say or point a finger at," Pavelski said. "You need things to go right at times, getting key goals. It just didn't go for us this time."
The Sharks appeared to be on the right path midway through March when they had a nine-point lead over Anaheim in the Pacific Division and looked poised for another long playoff run following last year's trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
But six straight regulation losses, key injuries to top two centers Thornton and Couture, and fatigue following a short summer, the World Cup in September and a condensed schedule caught up to them.
"Everyone talked about getting to the Final the year before and how tough the next year is — you always think you can be the team that can do it," coach Peter DeBoer said. "It's hard, it's a grind. I'm not prepared to take inventory of what went wrong. My gut feeling is we ran out of gas in the last month. It's just a reality."
Thornton injured his left knee on April 2 and missed the final three games of the regular season and first two games of the playoffs. He returned but was not at his usual level, and teammates said he was basically playing on one leg.
Couture had a gruesome injury after a shot by Brent Burns deflected into his face on March 25, knocking out several teeth and making it painful to breathe or eat. He missed the final two weeks of the regular season before returning for the playoffs.
"Excuses are for losers," Couture said. "You have to step up at this time of the year to play at this time of the year. It doesn't matter if you're hurt because there are always guys that aren't healthy. It doesn't matter if you're tired. You have to find a way and they found it and we didn't."
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