I thought I wouldn't care.
I thought I'd done an adequate job of insulating myself from letting a stupid hockey game make me feel emotions after the Sharks dropped Game 6 on Monday. I thought I'd come to terms with what at the time felt like an inevitable Game 7 loss, capping a playoff collapse so devastating it's completely unparalleled even in the malaise-ridden postseason history of the San Jose Sharks. Lord knows I have experience doing just that after years of watching promising Sharks teams come up short en route to the promised land. I thought I had protected myself with a safety blanket of numbness, shielded from feeling a thing after Anze Kopitar cashed in on a 3-on-2 rush or Tyler Toffoli provided the dagger early in the third period. And it worked. As the Sharks skated to the worst series loss in their history, I was indifferent to the outcome, desensitized by years of witnessing playoff disappointment and days of knowing in my gut exactly how this was going to end.
But then I saw this:
And it broke me. Yes, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are millionaire professional athletes who don't need our sympathy. But goddamnit do they deserve better than this. Fault the effort of either of them in this game (it certainly wasn't Thornton's best) or this series all you want but the fact remains they're the two best players in Sharks history, certainly two of the best in the history of the National Hockey League, yet their shared legacy were they to retire tomorrow would be one of failure. Disappointment. Anticlimactic washouts. Luckily they aren't retiring tomorrow, or anytime soon, but that almost feels like a preferable option to having to carry on careers already marred with the moniker of "choker" in the aftermath of what came to a devastating conclusion tonight in San Jose. At least every previous hurl of the c-word at this franchise could be rationalized; the cheapshot that took out Milan Michalek changed everything in 2006, Jonas Hiller was simply unbeatable in 2009, the Blackhawks were a far better team in 2010.
But this one? This is different. This is the low point; the nadir of a team that always seems poised to shove it up the collective ass of their naysayers before falling flat on their faces instead. This was the epitome of the playoff collapses the Sharks have become synonymous with and the worst part is that it came in the year where they were perhaps best poised to make a real run at a Stanley Cup. This was the best roster they've ever iced, certainly good enough to ensure the history books' account of Thornton and Marleau's careers was that of triumph after a long, but eventually fruitful, wait. Instead they've written themselves, and by extension their two best players, into the history books in the worst way imaginable, becoming just the fourth team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 series lead after tonight's 5-1 loss in Game 7. You can rationalize this loss, too; the Kings winning in seven games would have sounded disappointing, but certainly not surprising or franchise-altering, if someone had told you it was going to happen before this series began. And that's what I drew upon in trying not to let this game bother me.
Unfortunately, as much as it rationally should not, the order of the wins does matter. The Sharks coming oh-so-close to sweeping the Kings, setting themselves up for an easier second-round opponent in the process and surely a lengthy playoff run, before dropping four straight to the team that beat them in the playoffs last spring as well...that hurts. And it's going to hurt for a long, long time. Thornton and Marleau deserved better than this and they'll get another kick at the can next year with a roster that should be a legitimate Cup contender as long as the Sharks don't completely overreact to this series and blow everything up. But if it's getting hard for me to keep doing this every spring, I can't imagine how hard it's getting for them.
It turns out I do care, and that's the worst part of any of this.