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Have these Sharks changed at all?

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- There were times on the bench Saturday night that San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan saw his players hesitate just a moment before going over the boards, soaking in the surreal atmosphere and temporarily losing sight of the immediacy of the situation.

He couldn't blame them. After all, he explained, they're only human.

There were times when he had to holler with a bit more bite to grab his players' attention, considering the crowd of 70,205 competing for it. There were also times, especially when the team first walked out toward the ice at Levi's Stadium, when he felt the hair stand up on the back of his own neck.

And so it's only natural that this game, not just any old regular-season match in February, hurts a little bit more for the Sharks, falling to a familiar foe 2-1 in one of their biggest tests of the year.

The Los Angeles Kings, the same stubborn squad that erased a 3-0 series deficit to upset the Sharks in the first round of the playoffs last spring, came in and stole their glory.

Again.

"This was our show. These were our fans. This is Sharks territory," McLellan said in his postgame press conference.

But beyond the pure pride of losing that game in front of a captivated home crowd, the Sharks also suffered a very real setback in their postseason hopes. The Kings' win, their seventh straight, allowed them to piggy-back the Sharks for third place in the Pacific Division and knocked San Jose from the top eight teams in the Western Conference in the process.

The Sharks now have four days off to stew over that fact.

"The big games like these, you want to win 'em," Sharks forward Joe Pavelski said. "You want to push towards that second season. Right now, we're not there. There's nothing given to us. We have to go out and earn it."

Logan Couture looked legitimately crushed, hanging his head so drastically that his right ear practically made contact with his right shoulder as he tried to explain what went wrong.

Obviously, the playing conditions were not ideal. It was warm outside and the ice was soft, no huge shock with the California temps, despite the prowess of ice whisperer Dan Craig and his tireless crew.

Trying to make plays through the neutral zone was pretty much a nonstarter, as the Sharks quickly learned throughout a turnover-riddled first period.

"There's just different issues every single night," Couture said. "[Saturday] it was the neutral zone, getting the puck out of our end, but I think some of it has to do with the ice. Both teams were having trouble getting through the neutral zone and retrieving pucks in their own end ... it made it tough on everyone."

McLellan wanted them to eliminate the neutral zone entirely and instead adopt an aggressive north-south game.

Simplicity was required and the Sharks pushed back toward the end of the opening frame, tying the game on Brent Burns' 16th goal of the season, scored after a key faceoff win by Tommy Wingels.

But the Sharks would be burned once again by the neutral zone, when Kings sniper Marian Gaborik took the puck from Burns and went in for a rare slapper that beat Sharks netminder Antti Niemi for what would stand as the game winner at 4:04 of the third.

"Yeah, we knew the ice wasn't that great," Gaborik said. "We tried to forecheck Burns. Burnsy had the puck on the stick. Just picked it off of him and tried to go, and the shot went in."

The Sharks looked deflated after that, despite efforts to knot the score at 2.

"It was an unintentional sag, that's for sure, but I think we got down after that, for whatever reason," Wingels said. "It wasn't like the game got away from us. It was a one-goal game for us at that point."

The Sharks pulled Niemi for the extra attacker with 1:21 to play in the third. It was a last-ditch effort to salvage the game, and a critical two points, but their attempts came up short.

San Jose now has 21 games left -- "42 points on the table," as McLellan swiftly noted -- to snag a postseason berth and position themselves for a run.

Is this team capable?

It would be a mistake to compare what happened Saturday night to last spring. Two points in February, no matter how tight the standings are, cannot stack up against the type of soul-crushing train wreck the team endured last April. That Game 7 loss was not just one that would require some time to forget.

How could they when it served as such a clear turning point for an organization that went haphazardly about making changes, awkwardly stripping veteran Joe Thornton of his captaincy and arguing semantics after doing so.

Maybe the team is still smarting from last season's bitter disappointment. Maybe the team's recent skid -- six losses in their past eight games -- has nothing to do with it whatsoever.

But the scene from Saturday night -- a Sharks team skating off in frustration after a loss to the Kings -- makes you wonder:

How much have the Sharks changed from last season?

And if they haven't -- if they make a hasty exit from the playoffs again this spring or miss them entirely -- how much change will we see next season?

"I believe this group is gonna push as hard as we can to make the playoffs," Couture said. "And if we don't, then shame on us."