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End came fast for Thornton, Sharks

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Although the San Jose Sharks seem destined to be postseason players for years to come, they wasted an opportunity this spring that might never come again.

Team Teal's roller coaster season flew off the tracks Wednesday, with a 2-0 loss in Edmonton that capped a stunning playoff collapse for many experts' favorites to reach the Stanley Cup finals.

Four straight losses were perversely fitting for the Sharks, who flopped out of the gate last fall before finally picking up momentum with their tremendous play down the regular-season stretch. They cruised through the first round against Nashville while all four top Western Conference seeds were eliminated, and the Sharks easily went up, 2-0, on the Oilers.

But they obliterated that mass of good fortune with four defeats over eight days. After returning from Edmonton Thursday, the players had a day off to begin absorbing their disappointments.

''Our goal has never changed throughout the year," said Jonathan Cheechoo, who won the Maurice Richard trophy with an NHL-best 56 goals, but had just four in 11 playoff games. ''It's always going to be disappointing when you don't win the Cup."

The Sharks' season went sour in a week after four gradual months of improvement. The turnaround started with their brilliant four-player trade for Joe Thornton, who joined the team from Boston Nov. 30 and proceeded to win the scoring title, a first for him and his new franchise.

But the Sharks didn't fully capitalize on Thornton's brilliance until an eight-game winning streak late in the regular season, catapulting themselves from 10th place to fifth. The Sharks had lost four games in a row just once since his arrival -- until the Edmonton stunners.

General manager Doug Wilson and coach Ron Wilson now must begin contemplation of the future -- and despite a dismal present, it seems bright.

Thornton, Cheechoo, and captain Patrick Marleau are under contract, and center Alyn McCauley is the only veteran who will be an unrestricted free agent.

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