Sharks go home empty-handed, again

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- It was a different journey, but an all-too-familiar ending.

The San Jose Sharks played their guts out Tuesday night in a 3-2 double-overtime loss, outshooting the victorious Vancouver Canucks 56-34, but went home empty-handed after five games in the Western Conference finals.

It's a feeling the Sharks are getting mighty tired of. They failed to reach the Stanley Cup finals once again when they looked every bit as dangerous as any other team in the league.

"Our task ahead of us is to get our [butts] back here in the conference finals and make good on it," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said after the heartbreaking loss.

How many more times will they get here? Is the window for them closing?

"No. I think that's ridiculous," McLellan said. "We have some very talented players that are under contract. We have a real strong core. We've learned a lot of lessons along the way. We've grown as a team. In my opinion, there's absolutely no reason why we can't be an elite team again next year, as we were the last three, four, five years. We expect to be there. That's the standard we live by."

Inside a somber dressing room, to a man, the Sharks believed they'll be right back here again.

"We still got a lot of years," said captain Joe Thornton, who had his best playoffs yet. "Our core group still has some years left. We'll come back and be hungrier next year."

What's puzzling about the Sharks is that they've knocked out the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings two years in a row -- no small achievement. But they've followed that up by losing eight of the nine games they've played in the Western Conference finals.

Glass half full or half empty?

"You could ask 27 teams, and I think they're a little jealous at the success we've had," Thornton said. "You get down to the two top teams in your conference, they're two pretty good teams. To get here is an accomplishment, but next year we have to beat it."

We can think of many NHL teams that would celebrate back-to-back conference finals appearances. Heck, fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs still revere those back-to-back trips in 1993 and 1994 as legendary moments in the franchise's history.

The Sharks, however, self-admittedly set a loftier goal for their season once again: the Stanley Cup. Great teams aren't shy about setting the bar high. It shows confidence. But when the team falls short, questions are asked.

This second trip to the Western Conference finals and subsequent quick exit revealed a few truths: Thornton, Ryane Clowe, Logan Couture, Dan Boyle and Douglas Murray are up to the task. They brought it night in and night out and paid the price to have success in the playoffs. Clowe played the entire playoffs with a shoulder injury, McLellan revealed after the game. Clowe was so upset after the loss that he couldn't talk to reporters. This team needs more guys that care like he does.

But there are still too many passengers on this team.

First and foremost, the challenge for GM Doug Wilson is to improve his blue line. The speedy Canucks exposed his defense in this series. Boyle and Murray hung in there, but after that, it was slim pickings. The injury to Jason Demers hurt, but the fact is the Sharks need to prioritize adding a top-four blueliner in the offseason. Look, we know they don't grow on trees, but that's a glaring need on this team.

Up front, the Sharks have to figure out what to do with Dany Heatley. His back-to-back 50-goal seasons in Ottawa seem like eons ago, his goal production has slipped dramatically and his inability to keep up with the playoff pace is a stunning reality. Heatley has three more years left on his deal at a $7.5 million cap hit. Heatley needs to have one of the hardest-working offseasons of his career, because three goals in 18 playoff just games doesn't cut it.

"Obviously pretty frustrating," Heatley said. "I didn't produce enough in this series. We lost; that's all I have to say about that."

Devin Setoguchi is a restricted free agent July 1. He had seven goals in these playoffs, two of them overtime winners. But his performance was inconsistent and frustrated the coaching staff. Do the Sharks re-sign him or explore his trade value at the draft?

And what about Joe Pavelski, who exploded on the bigger stage last season with a clutch postseason and a terrific Olympics? Pavelski's playoff production dropped from an impressive 17 points (9-8) in 15 games last spring to 10 points (5-5) in 18 games this year. His two helpers Tuesday night were actually one of his better games. Still, what gives? Yes, last year he had a top-six role in the playoffs while this spring he dropped to third-line center, but he still racked up important power-play minutes. His slight regression is troubling for the Sharks.

"Obviously there's times on the power play I would have liked to have been a lot better," Pavelski said. "It felt like I had my chances. I could have moved better in certain games. ... You want to be better. You set a standard high and you expect that of yourself. Obviously, you didn't reach that as well as you wanted. You have to learn from that."

On the flip side, the evolution of the captain this season was hugely encouraging. Thornton took his game to new heights, especially in the playoffs, playing both sides of the puck like never before. His willingness to sacrifice offense for two-way play is reminiscent of the great Steve Yzerman. So is Thornton's willingness to play through pain, the star center revealing afterward he separated his shoulder in Game 4 but played through it Tuesday night.

"Obviously, that's a very courageous game for him to play," McLellan said. "He did separate his shoulder last game. It was very painful. Our training staff and doctors did a tremendous job in preparing him to play. Like I had mentioned to you before, when he comes and tells you he's playing, he's playing.

"I think there was a lot made out of it prior to the game. But we were real confident in that locker room he was going to give us what he had, and he did. I think it's a tremendous step for him as an individual and for us as an organization, have your captain show up and play that way."

In the end, the Sharks will look back on these playoffs and regret not disposing of the Anze Kopitar-less Kings in fewer than six games and not ending Detroit's season earlier than seven games after taking a 3-0 series lead. That sucked the life out of the Sharks, and they had nothing in the tank for the opening two games of the conference finals.

"Perhaps," McLellan said. "The L.A. series was a very physical series for us, hard-fought six games. Took its toll. We have a lot of guys bumped and bruised and injured. ... But the Detroit series did take a lot out of us. When you look at Game 1, I thought fatigue was our biggest factor in this game. You can attribute that to the team in Detroit taking a little bit of our juice away from us, if you will."

It's a lesson the Sharks must remember for next season when they'll try yet again to get over the hump.

"I'm sure we'll probably sit back and think about it," Couture said. "Right now, the sting of the loss is so tough to overcome. It just sucks. It sucks."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.