Commentary

Now more than ever, Sharks need a hero in Game 7

Updated: April 22, 2008, 8:14 PM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

The general consensus is that, despite compiling six points in as many games, Jumbo Joe Thornton is once again proving to be the largest disappearing act since Houdini made Jenny, a 10,000-pound elephant, vanish at the New York Hippodrome in 1918.

Puck-moving defenseman Brian Campbell was supposed to be the final piece in a revolutionary design when he was picked up from the Buffalo Sabres at the trade deadline. Yet, so far in this series, he has designs solely on anonymity.

Who, pray tell, is going to step up for the San Jose Sharks in their hour of inquisition Tuesday night?

We know full well the names of the men prepared to take the assignment for the Calgary Flames tonight at HP Pavilion. The inspirational Jarome Iginla. Rollicking Robyn Regehr. And, in his own erratic but compelling way, hold-on-to-the-seat-of-your-pants defenseman Dion Phaneuf.

They're guaranteed to bring energy, commitment and that difference-making attitude to their team's unlikely push for the upset.

But on the Sharks? Who, specifically, will match them? Therein lies the quandary.

"If I have to manufacture desperation," coach Ron Wilson admitted, "we are in dire straits."

Patrick Marleau accepted the always-daunting role of messiah for Games 3, 4 and 5, scraping himself off the ice from that now-infamous Cory Sarich hit to look every inch an inspirational Iginla-esque captain. But he faded noticeably in Game 6 as the Sharks botched their first opportunity in the series to finally shed that hard-earned reputation as hockey's great underachievers.

Jonathan Cheechoo has played with verve the past three games, and the gritty Ryane Clowe has proved to be an unlikely source of offensive power.

But Game 7s usually are reserved for star players. These are the games in which reputations are forged and names seared forever into the public consciousness.

"Ultimately," the late Norman Mailer wrote, "a hero is a man who would argue with the gods, and so awakens devils to contest his vision."

San Jose desperately needs such a hero tonight.

An individual willing to accept responsibility for the many and do what's necessary for the survival of the group -- whatever, however. To argue with the gods, like All-Canadian boy Iginla; to sneer in the face of the devils, like the villainous Phaneuf.

If no one will, the Sharks' 20-game unbeaten streak through March and those glowing reviews heading into the postseason will mean nothing. Anything less than moving ahead to face the Dallas Stars in the next round will be considered an unmitigated disaster.

Wilson (aka Slick Willie) is in his sixth season at the Sharks' helm. Outside of that run to the 2004 Western Conference finals (where they were upset by -- surprise, surprise -- an underdog Calgary entry), San Jose's postseason results have been, considering the talent and expenditure, deflating.

Will the highly respected and vastly entertaining Wilson take the fall if the Sharks add another early exit to their résumé? Surely he's on the clock by now.

This also might be the last chance for Marleau in teal. General manager Doug Wilson held fast at the trade deadline, deciding to ignore Marleau's shocking first half and let the rest of the season play out. But if silent Patty is not the leader San Jose needs to propel itself out of this perpetual playoff funk, the Sharks might decide to look at other options.

And what of Thornton, the big-points regular-season guy who shrinks come playoff time? Lose tonight, and obviously he requires a different, more forceful supporting cast to better insulate that lack of outward fire.

On Sunday night in snow-blanketed Calgary, the Sharks showed all the killer instinct of Bambi lost in the forest calling for his mother, reinforcing an underachieving image that continues to cling like a bad smell.

But there still is enough time to make amends. Sixty minutes -- or more -- worth of the stuff.

Hockey people forever talk in hindsight of defining moments for championship teams, that one speed bump they successfully negotiated to set them on their winning way. Usually, it arrives sooner than later in the always-tricky first round. Long playoff runs can be ignited from challenges like tonight's Game 7. The Sharks certainly won't get a chance at such a run if they put in a slapdash effort like Sunday's.

"That was embarrassing," Sharks defenseman Douglas Murray said after Sunday's loss in Calgary. "You might not be able to bring your A-game every night, but you can bring effort every night, you can battle every night, you can compete hard every night.

"We didn't do any of those things. We had a chance to finish them off and we didn't. We knew they'd bring everything at us, facing elimination, and that we had to match that. We didn't. We still haven't answered those questions."

There are no guarantees in a Game 7, of course. Such games tend to write wild, improbable scripts. But what the Sharks could use is an early goal to fire belief in themselves and their flock. What they could use is Jeremy Roenick back in the lineup, because, well, he's JR. What they could use is an intensity level to mach Calgary's (clearly the Flames' greatest asset) and the confidence to count on their superior ability ruling the day.

What they could use, most of all, is a hero.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.