The Sharks have been below .500 since Dec. 10, but you can trace the true death knell of San Jose's season back to the fractured ankle Logan Couture sustained in the second period of a 3-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Jan. 7.
Prior to that defeat, the Sharks were finding their stride, earning five out of a possible six points over their previous three games, all on the road. San Jose actually prevailed in its first two games after Couture's injury, but would go on to lose five of the next six, all but vanquishing what little playoff hopes the Sharks had left. It didn't help matters that Tomas Hertl tore ligaments in his knee during that stretch, as well.
Hertl was ruled out for the season. Couture, on the other hand, returned from a 17-game absence in San Jose's 4-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night.
Couture didn't figure into the scoring, but that's understandable considering it has been nearly seven weeks since he last practiced. He wasn't able to do so prior to Tuesday's loss, but interim coach Bob Boughner was glad regardless to have the Sharks' captain back in the lineup.
"It was nice to see his name on the board," Boughner told reporters at Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday. "After morning skate, he felt that there was a chance he could play. Obviously, he's still getting his feet underneath him. His game speed is off. He's still saying that he had two or three chances to score goals tonight, so it was good to see him back."
Arguably more important than the outcome of the game was the fact that Couture emerged from it relatively unscathed. He did get a brief scare late in the second period when he went to the locker room after taking a shot to the foot, but he was back on the ice for the start of the third.
True to character, Couture was his own harshest critic following the loss, pointing the finger at himself for the frustrating outcome.
"I wish I played a little bit better, but I'm OK," Couture explained. "It's disappointing because if I score those goals or those chances, we're probably still playing right now. So, tough one."
Couture described his best scoring chance as missing "by seven feet", and admitted the lack of practice time likely played into that. However, the captain understood his team needed him, even if he wasn't in top form.
"I was cleared," Couture said. "I still haven't gotten in a practice, so my hands I knew weren't going to be great, but I figured it's been a rough couple days."
Couture, obviously, was referring to the passing of the NHL trade deadline, which saw several of his longtime teammates -- Brenden Dillon, Patrick Marleau and Barclay Goodrow -- head to Eastern Conference contenders. The draft picks San Jose got back in those trades should help the franchise eventually return to contention, but in the meantime, it might be a tad lonely in the Sharks' locker room.
Less so now that Couture's back, at least.