Sharks fight to end, but future uncertain

CHICAGO -- This time, the San Jose Sharks head home without feeling shame.

After five years of playoff frustration, the Sharks can empty their lockers knowing they left it all on the ice this spring, but simply ran into the NHL's best team, the Chicago Blackhawks, in the Western Conference finals.

And the perennial whipping boys, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, also escape blame this time around. Thornton was solid in all three rounds, while Marleau caught fire in the West finals, scoring five of his teams' seven goals.

"It comes down to winning. I would take those [goals] away if we were still playing," an emotional Marleau said in a dead-quiet Sharks dressing room Sunday.

They may not have underachieved this time around, but they fell short of their goal.

"We played some good hockey, it just didn't work out for whatever reason," said Thornton. "But none of these guys gave up, which is a good sign."

The four-game sweep was misleading. The Sharks played their guts out and could have easily taken a game or two.

"It's a sweep on the board, but ... there will be a lot of people that will say it was a one-way series, and that's fine, but anyone who knows anything about hockey knows that three out of four games could have gone our way," said defenseman Dan Boyle. "We're there. We're right there. I'll be here next year, a lot of guys will be back next year, we'll fight for it."

Just what this team looks like next season is anyone's guess.

Marleau, Rob Blake and goalie Evgeni Nabokov are the key unrestricted free agents, while Scott Nichol, Manny Malhotra and Niclas Wallin are also UFAs. Meanwhile, Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi are restricted free agents who will need raises. The Sharks have 12 players under contract for next season.

"Don't blow it up," was the message from the Sharks' players Sunday.

"I think we believe in this group," said Dany Heatley. "We've gone through a lot and battled through a lot of things. I'd like to see the group come back."

The betting money is on Blake retiring, but the 40-year-old Sharks captain wouldn't tip his hand Sunday.

"I know what I'm going to do, but I'll take some time here and decide," said Blake. "I'll let this sink in for a while. No rush to make a decision."

Marleau has been a Shark his entire career. His play in the first two rounds were average, but he was his team's best player in the conference finals.

Does he want to stay?

"We love San Jose, yeah," Marleau said. "So we'll see how everything works out."

Heatley is under contract for four more years at a $7.5 million cap hit. His two playoff goals this spring were not very impressive for that kind of dough; but, as we have suspected all along in these playoffs, he was not 100 percent.

"Dany Heatley had a very bad groin injury in the Colorado series," Sharks coach Todd McLellan revealed Sunday. "He really gutted it out. Over time, he's got better. In my opinion, I don't think he's ever got back to where he needed to be skating wise. I think it was evident. You know, he's a pretty noble guy. He's going to tell you he's pretty close to being good, but he never really got back to where he needed to be."

When we asked Heatley about his health, he said he felt fine, not wanting to use the injury as a crutch. Next season, the Sharks need Heatley healthy and producing to make it to the Cup finals. Just who his teammates will be next season remains to be seen.

If McLellan has his way, this is largely the team he'll get back.

"I definitely believe in this group," said McLellan. "You know, there's going to be a lot of people sitting behind a computer and a typewriter writing their stories tomorrow. I know exactly how they're going to come out because that's what you guys do. But when you're in between those walls, in those bricks, you know, we believe in that group. We have that experience now. You know, we've gone through that. Maybe we can expand on it."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.