To some degree, the Sharks were playing on borrowed time all season.
The 2018-19 campaign marked 39-year-old Joe Thornton’s 21st in the league. Captain Joe Pavelski turned 34 in July, and defenseman Brent Burns did the same in March. Fellow Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson missed 27 of the Sharks’ final 33 games with two separate groin injuries, and rookie surprise Radim Simek needed season-ending knee surgery in March. San Jose faced elimination four times in the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But that time looked at moments like it would be enough. Thornton evolved into an effective third-line center, Pavelski led the team with 38 goals and Burns snagged his third Norris Trophy nomination. Karlsson scored 16 points in 19 playoff games despite clearly playing through injury, and the Sharks successfully stared down elimination every time in the first and second rounds.
On Tuesday, the Sharks’ borrowed time finally ran out.
San Jose couldn’t fight off elimination once more in Game 6 of the Western Conference final, losing 5-1 to the St. Louis Blues at Enterprise Center. The absences of Karlsson, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl proved to be too much, and the Sharks head into an offseason filled with uncertainty.
The Sharks trailed by two goals two separate times Tuesday, and pushed relentlessly to get back into Game 6 in the third period. But when a pass on an odd-man rush bounced off of Gustav Nyquist’s stick in the third period to give the Blues a three-goal lead, the Sharks could borrow time no longer.
The season began with Cup-or-bust aspirations after the blockbuster acquisition of Karlsson on the eve of training camp, but started inauspiciously with a 12-9-5 record entering December. Then, after a highly publicized team meeting with general manager Doug Wilson on Dec. 2, the Sharks went on their best run of the season.
From then until March 12, San Jose went 31-9-3 (65 points). Only the Tampa Bay Lightning had a better record during that stretch, and the Sharks were one of the best 5-on-5 puck-possession teams in the league. That allowed San Jose to compensate for some cracks in the foundation, such as Karlsson missing extended stretches and goaltenders Martin Jones and Aaron Dell ranking twoards the bottom of the league in save percentage.
"Really, we had [Karlsson] healthy for six weeks and dialed in," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer told reporters in St. Louis on Tuesday. "The first two months of the season he was getting used to us. I thought he got dialed in January, February, and I thought we were maybe the best team in the league through that stretch, and then he wasn't healthy again."
Those cracks became harder to cover down the stretch. Simek joined Karlsson on the sidelines, and Pavelski missed seven games himself. The Sharks finished the season on a 3-8-1 skid, and looked bound for a quick postseason exit.
That looked all but certain four games into a first-round series with the Vegas Golden Knights. The Sharks trailed three-games-to-one in the best-of-seven series, and then by three goals in Game 7, but they kept going.
Jones turned his play around and almost single-handedly forced Game 7 with a historic performance in Game 6 in Sin City. San Jose scored four goals on a highly controversial Vegas cross-checking major that left Pavelski bloodied on the SAP Center ice, and eventually eliminated the Golden Knights in overtime.
Pavelski returned for Game 7 of the second round against the Colorado Avalanche, after the Sharks traded wins with the Nathan MacKinnon-led squad through the first six. He scored 5:57 into that game, and San Jose’s offside challenge led to a controversial-yet-correctly applied ruling that wiped away Colorado’s apparent game-tying goal. The Sharks hung on to advance to the Western Conference final, where they took a two-games-to-one series lead.
But after Karlsson scored the overtime winner seconds following Timo Meier’s uncalled hand pass in Game 3, the Sharks did not look the same. They lost the next three games, and Karlsson, Hertl and Pavelski to injuries along the way. The latter two did not result in discipline for Ivan Barbashev and Alex Pietrangelo’s hits, respectively, and Karlsson could barely cope with a lower-body injury in Games 4 and 5.
The Sharks’ Cup-or-bust season ended Thursday six wins short of that goal, and in the same fashion as the regular season. San Jose won 10 of its last 20 regular-season games, and finished the Stanley Cup playoffs with a 10-10 record.
Offense was the Sharks’ calling card in the regular season, but it dried up in the final three games of the Western Conference final. Evander Kane’s goal-less drought hit 11 games, and trade-deadline acquisition Gustav Nyquist’s hit 12. They weren’t alone, though, as San Jose scored only two goals in the last three games of the series.
Now, the Sharks head into a summer of questions. Karlsson, Nyquist, Pavelski and Thornton can all become unrestricted free agents, and Timo Meier appears headed for a restricted free-agent payday. Assuming the salary cap does not increase, the Sharks have about $24.7 million in space. General manager Doug Wilson will need to walk a tightrope to retain even some of those players, let alone all of them.
If Thornton retires and/or Pavelski signs elsewhere, then 2018-19 will feel like the last page of a chapter in Sharks history. This iteration arguably was San Jose’s most talented, and showed plenty of resilience en route to the conference final. From Wilson’s September blockbuster to the ill-fated third-period push Tuesday, the Sharks went down swinging.
"My disappointment isn't thinking about next year, mine is about the group that we had this year," DeBoer said, "and the adversity we faced ... and the number of times they were written for dead and buried, and the number of times they kept getting off the mat. ... That's the disappointing stuff for me. That's stuff you don't see [that] should get rewarded ... but it's a harsh league, and it's a hard trophy to win. So, my disappointment's there."
The Sharks added a few moments to their franchise lore, but 2018-19 ultimately belongs on a list of close-but-not-quite seasons that San Jose can’t wait to shred. In their 27th season of existence, the Sharks’ borrowed time could only last so long.