The San Jose Sharks have already staged one of the more dramatic playoff runs in Bay Area sports history, and they’re only halfway to a championship. That’s why it feels impossible to win the Stanley Cup.
The Sharks have come face-to-face with extinction four times in their first two series – three elimination games after falling behind the Vegas Golden Knights three-games-to-one, and then Game 7 against Colorado after surrendering a three-games-to-two lead. While winning all four, the Sharks have survived a 3-0 third-period deficit, two sudden-death overtimes and an ugly head injury to captain Joe Pavelski. They spent the last 19 minutes of Wednesday’s victory clinging for dear life to a one-goal lead.
Cheating the reaper four times is quite an accomplishment, but it is not a Bay Area record. That belongs to the 2012 San Francisco Giants, who fought off elimination six times – six! – on the way to their second World Series title.
“You have to give everything you’ve got. Play like it’s the last game of your life,” says Tim Flannery, third base coach of those Giants teams.
Flan had the best seat in the house to watch the Giants erase a two-game deficit vs Cincinnati in the 2012 NLDS and then repeat the feat vs St. Louis in the NLCS. But it was not his first rodeo. Flan had seen firsthand the intense emotions that can accompany becoming the hero or goat in a do-or-die game.
As a San Diego utility man in 1984, Flannery hit the ground ball that slipped between Cubs’ first baseman Leon Durham’s legs in Game 5 of the NLCS. It was one of the most infamous errors in baseball history, tying that game and sparking the Padres to a miraculous series turnaround and their first pennant.
“You hate to see the other side of it – Leon Durham, Bill Buckner. Those guys were good players in this league for a long time and deserve to be remembered for more than one play.”
Flannery recalls the afternoon of Game 3 in Cincinnati on October 9, 2012. After two lopsided losses at home, the Giants seemed dead in the water.
“Should I say something to them?” manager Bruce Bochy asked him.
“It’s your team – do what you feel is right.”
So Bochy assembled the troops and launched into the biblical story of Gideon, his triumph against long odds and a superior force. But before he could get too far, he was interrupted by an intensely pacing Hunter Pence.
“That’s great, skip. But I want to play one more day with YOU! And one more day with YOU!”
He stalked around the room, pointing to each of his teammates. That’s how the legend of Reverend Pence was born, and throughout the remainder of that postseason, Pence’s impromptu sermons took place in the dugout before each game.
The Giants barely eked out a win in that Game 3, scoring the winning run on a 10th-inning Scott Rolen error. The next day, they were in attack mode – three home runs and a dominant Tim Lincecum relief appearance buoyed them to an 8-3 win.
In the decider, the Giants jumped out 6-0 on a Buster Posey grand slam and seemed ready to cruise home behind Matt Cain. But the game tightened up late, and in the bottom of the 9th, the Reds got the winning run to the plate. The Giants were one pitch from a sudden vacation. Sergio Romo and Jay Bruce then engaged in a 12-pitch battle that seemed to go on forever.
Flan remembers: “I have this old piece of coal that belonged to my dad – he grew up across the river in Kentucky, coal-mining country – and I had taped it to my wrist for good luck and to help me keep calm. As that at-bat went on, I got so nervous that I started chewing on it.
“After we won, we’re all celebrating and Barry Zito saw me in the pile. He said, hey Flan, what’s that black stuff all over your face?”
Michael Morse played in only one elimination game as a Giant. But it was the most memorable in team history – Game 7 of the 2014 World Series in Kanas City. It was immortalized by Madison Bumgarner’s epic relief appearance, but that would have meant little without Morse, who drove in the game’s first run on a sacrifice fly and then the eventual winning run with a 4th-inning single.
“You have to give everything in an elimination game, but you also can’t overthink it,” says Morse. “You see guys thinking, ‘I have to swing at strikes. I can’t make an error.’ You have to stay calm and just play baseball.
“The effort was so intense, I was absolutely exhausted at the end of that game.”
The Giants had been annihilated 10-0 in Game 6 the night before. Bochy then made another rousing speech before Game 7, singling out each player for his contributions that had made the team’s journey possible. But Morse remembers what Buster Posey told him immediately afterward.
“Buster pulled me aside and said, 'Relax, we’re going to win. We win these games.'”
A few hours later, he was right.
Elimination game victories can turn depth players into household names. For the Sharks this year, they have included Kevin Labanc, who scored an NHL playoff record four points during the third-period rally in Game 7 vs. Vegas, and fourth-liner Barclay Goodrow, who netted the overtime winner in that game.
They can also certify established stars as high-stakes heroes – like Pavelski, who enjoyed a Willis Reed moment with a goal and assist in his storybook return to the ice in Game 7 vs Colorado.
[RELATED: Watch Setoguchi predict Pavs' Game 7 goal vs. Avs]
The Sharks must still navigate two more tough series. Again, they may have to summon their best while walking the cliff’s edge. It is not inconceivable that they could break the Giants’ record of six wins in elimination games.
Doing so will require a total team effort and heroes yet to be named. Keep calm and carry on.