Commentary

Degrees of first-round loss

Updated: April 30, 2009, 6:17 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

It's eerie now.

In the final weekend of the regular season, as the Sharks justifiably and efficiently were sending out information that touted Todd McLellan's work in his first season behind the San Jose bench and implicitly touted him as a coach of the year candidate, we asked him after a morning skate about the playoff pressures facing his team.

The situation was far from unique. The 2008-09 Sharks were going to be defined by their postseason run, not what turned out to be their Presidents' Trophy regular season. Yet it also was a relatively high degree of playoff pressure facing a first-year coach, contrasting with the more common situation of taking over a team that has missed the postseason and would be making progress just to get back.

"Each of those coaches has a different set of expectations and pressures -- this one being one of those teams in that top group that expect to win," McLellan said in the HP Pavilion. "Our plan, our foundation that we put together from day one, was geared toward that, where others might be in a development mode. The pressure on us, and I can only speak for us, and on the team and the organization is to win in the playoffs. We accept that, and we've accepted it from day one."

Oops.

The Sharks' six-game loss to the eighth-seeded Ducks might have had former San Jose coach Ron Wilson -- whose Maple Leafs didn't make the playoffs at all, but weren't expected to -- musing: Guess that wasn't so easy.

In Boston, where the Bruins looked impressive in rolling past the Canadiens, those who so curiously endorsed the trade of Joe Thornton for the underwhelming package of Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau could point out the big center will keep alive his streak of never having played in a conference final.

There are even reasons to consider the Sharks' first-round ouster something other than a complete embarrassment. Among them: In this league, it happens. The Presidents' Trophy is more a kiss of death than a portent. Plus, the Ducks -- who seemed to be meandering for much of the season but were a bona fide threat once they made the postseason and had settled in with Jonas Hiller in the net -- were an unusually threatening No. 8, even in a league in which a finalist can come from anywhere in the bracket.

Yet …

The Sharks, after so much buildup, after such a terrific season, after such impressive work by McLellan, are one and done.

The rekindled NHL excitement in the Silicon Valley led up to a letdown. General manager Doug Wilson's decision to bring in a fresh voice to replace Ron Wilson doesn't look like a genius move any longer, although it still could if nobody panics and this turns out to be a mere blip on McLellan's ascension in the coaching world.

Yet they get seeded first here, too, on our list rating teams according to the degree of damage -- including embarrassment and anger -- caused by a first-round loss. Albeit with the concession that there are 14 other teams that didn't even get the chance to fail in the postseason.

The rest of the list:

2. Montreal Canadiens

What a mess & and what a contrast to the optimistic and upbeat atmosphere that prevailed for much of the centennial season, including when the Canadiens played host to the All-Star Game. Guy Carbonneau went from Eastern Conference assistant to out of a job; Bob Gainey staked his reputation on his reaction to some player dissent; the Habs continued to slide; congenial and largely acclaimed owner George Gillett Jr. took steps toward putting the team and the Bell Centre back on the market; the Canadiens' young stars were guilty of bad judgments off the ice and were tabloid fodder; and the bad news piled on.

There will be no significant playoff run to dilute the criticism. Promise turned to disaster.

3. New York Rangers

John Tortorella's Game 5 meltdown in Washington, the sort that left many first nodding in sympathy because they've had it up to here with "fans" acting as if a ticket is a blanket right to say and do anything they want, then shaking their heads because it was an abdication of leadership when it was most needed, will be the signature (and YouTube) moment.

That's unfair, but it's true.

The Rangers had the Caps on the brink.

The Rangers had the Caps right where they wanted them.

The Caps knew that if they lost, they would be the latest team to be tagged with the playoff "choker" tag. (They could get there; Alex Ovechkin could put on a show both to get goals and to celebrate them; and they could win a lackluster division, but they couldn't deliver in the clutch and get out of the first round.)

Then, the Rangers showed surprisingly little spunk in Games 5 and 6 -- outside of their coach's response in the dustup with the fans -- and it didn't help that Henrik Lundqvist suddenly was shaky.

Although the Rangers played much better in Game 7, and carried the play to the Capitals early, how do you go into the offseason off a third period in which you mount all of one shot on a rookie goalie? If you're the Blueshirts, you go off with red faces.

4. New Jersey Devils

Among other things, the results of Tuesday night's Game 7s mean the NHL is without a New York area franchise in the postseason beyond the first round; and, yes, that's a disappointment to some.

For the Devils, the second season in The Rock ended ignominiously. In a way, it's too bad, considering New Jersey's justifiable reputation as the franchise that just keeps on ticking and the potential excitement of a sustained playoff run in one of the league's best buildings.

5. Calgary Flames

The road became more difficult when the Flames were overtaken in the division down the stretch and dropped into the matchup with the up-and-coming Blackhawks, so as disappointing as this was for the folks who hoped to make an entire playoff run through Calgary's Red Mile, it wasn't a shock. If there's a red flag here, though, it's that workhorse goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff again has been shown to be a mere mortal and that his odometer appears to have rolled past the warranty period.

6. Philadelphia Flyers

They blew home ice and kept right on going, and Jeff Carter, who had such a terrific regular season, was all but invisible in the six-game loss to the Penguins. Yet the Flyers' return from 2006-07 oblivion remains an impressive feat, and this might be only a temporary setback.

7. Columbus Blue Jackets

Finally, a playoff series for the patient fans in Columbus. Unless Steve Mason's struggles against the Red Wings are more indicative of his long-term worth than his amazing regular season was (and I don't think that will be the case) -- or Rick Nash makes it clear he plans to leave town and coach Ken Hitchcock's system after next season and forces the Jackets' hands -- they'll be back. The sweep at the hands of the Wings, although nothing to brag about, shouldn't have a significant dampening effect.

8. St. Louis Blues

The Blues provided a skating definition of a team that did a great job just to make the postseason, refusing to let injuries and other problems serve as excuses before climbing out of the Western Conference cellar. Everything after that was extra credit. Most important, the Scottrade Center, a ghost town by any name in recent seasons, was an exciting venue again and the John Davidson regime has the franchise pointed in the right direction.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His books include "Third Down and a War to Go" and the upcoming "The Witch's Season." He can be reached at terry@terryfrei.com.

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."