Originally created 05/17/02

Sharks improve, but final result doesn't

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The San Jose Sharks still can't make the jump.

After six years of steady improvement leading up to the best regular-season record in franchise history, San Jose's fifth straight playoff run ended with another disappointment.

None of the Sharks' previous failures in their 11-year history bit quite as sharply as their seven-game loss to the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference semifinals.

This time, the Sharks thought they had the skill, depth and will to overcome the defending Stanley Cup champions and earn their first trip to the conference finals. After a 99-point regular season, they figured it was their year to join the NHL's elite teams.

"We were disappointed more than ever this year," center Vincent Damphousse said "because we felt that we had a team to go a long way."

San Jose had a 3-2 lead in the series, but two one-goal losses to Colorado ended the Sharks' season.

"We were one chance short in two games," coach Darryl Sutter said. "I think we showed that we can play with them. Now we have to figure out a way to beat them."

Teemu Selanne's failure to put the puck in a wide-open net in the first period will be the lasting image of Game 7, since it was the Sharks' best chance to inject some energy into an otherwise dispirited performance in the 1-0 defeat.

It's also a fitting symbol of the entire season for Selanne, who was the Sharks' best offensive player against Colorado, yet never became the big-game scorer most great hockey teams have.

Instead, San Jose relied on balance. During the regular season, eight Sharks scored at least 17 goals, but the team didn't have a 30-goal scorer. Their leading scorer, captain Owen Nolan, had just 66 points.

Whether that balance ever will translate into postseason success remains a mystery. But there's no mystery in the Sharks' net, where Evgeni Nabokov shook off two weak games to play phenomenally in Game 7, leaving no doubt about his future in San Jose.

It could be a tumultuous offseason for San Jose - again centered around Selanne.

The Finnish Flash cost the Sharks just $6 million this season, but he's a free agent, and signs suggest he's headed elsewhere after just 94 regular-season games with San Jose. Chicago and Los Angeles are among several teams who will be interested.

The Sharks' changing ownership situation likely will prohibit general manager Dean Lombardi from making an offer big enough to retain Selanne. San Jose's only chance could be if Selanne's pedestrian numbers from the regular season (29 goals, 54 points and a minus-11 rating in 82 games) scare away big-money offers.

But Selanne, who found a comfort zone among his teammates while playing on the best team of his NHL career, doesn't sound determined to depart.

"This team deserves better than this," Selanne said. "We had a great season. I hope when we get a chance like this again, we remember how we felt after this loss. Maybe we'll do better next year."

Defenseman Gary Suter, the quarterback of the Sharks' power play, also probably is finished in San Jose. the 37-year-old Suter has talked about retirement, and the Sharks are unlikely to pick up his expensive option for next season.

There's also the uncertain future of Sutter, who's not under contract for next season.

It would seem crazy to lose a coach who has played such a large role in the franchise's growth, but there's a school of thought around the Sharks that Sutter's cautious style of play and his philosophical clashes with star players hurt the team.

Given the Sharks' reputation for stability in the past half-decade, though, Sutter probably isn't worried about his future. Most of his players will return in 2002-03, and a seventh consecutive season with an improved point total would break the NHL record.

It also would mean the first 100-point season in franchise history.

"I'm not worried about where we'll go from here," center Mike Ricci said, "because I think it's only going to get better."


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