CHARACTER, HEART, grit. Without any doubt, the San Jose Sharks showed all of those marvelous qualities Sunday night, qualities so many observers thought they lacked throughout much of the 2007-08 hockey season.

But for all their intestinal fortitude displayed in a 4-OT thriller against the Dallas Stars, there was the chilly reality: The Sharks still lost the game 2-1 and dropped yet another NHL Western Conference semifinal series 4-2.

Fortitude aside, that's a 1-2 punch to the intestines that's become tiresome to watch from the alleged "most talented team in hockey." Seriously, at this point is extraordinary effort enough from the Sharks if it doesn't deliver victory and playoff advancement beyond the first round?

Blunt answer: No way, San Jose. This conference semifinal "Groundhog Day" elimination routine is getting old for fans, and it should be getting embarrassing for the Sharks, who are becoming the Atlanta Braves of hockey. Of course, the Braves won a World Series and got to a couple more, so maybe they're not even on that level.

Something significant has to change with these guys, because mere minor tinkering to achieve the same sour result next year is foolhardy, and that's precisely what will happen if the Sharks try to maintain the status quo. They'll still get the sellouts, they'll still win their share of games, but they'll never get a sniff of the Stanley Cup.

What alterations should bemade and which will be made by general manager Doug Wilson? Coach Ron Wilson may be the one guy who qualifies as a credible answer to both questions, even if it's a tough one on which to pull the rip cord.

Wilson has been a terrific coach for the Sharks during the regular season. But the playoffs have been an entirely different animal, for whatever reason. This year, San Jose nearly got bounced by decidedly inferior Calgary in the first round and fell behind 3-0 to Dallas despite playing the first two games at home.

Sorry, but that's inexcusable. It's simply not what you expect from a team that piled up 108 points and went through a 20-game unbeaten streak late in the year.

Whether one believes Wilson's postseason motivational or tactical skills are substandard or not, many believe he's simply run out of chances with the Sharks, that the approach has become stale and the players simply need a fresh face and voice after five seasons.

It might have happened last year had Doug Wilson been able to find a suitable replacement. He didn't. This year, ownership may press him to look harder — or invent somebody new — because it's one of the truisms in pro sports: It's easier to replace the coach than the players when the long-range plan keeps running into the same big rock in the road.

Certain elements of the Sharks haven't translated well from the regular season to the playoffs — special teams, for example. During the regular season, they boasted the No.1 penalty-killing unit in the NHL, but were conspicuously weak in that department against both Calgary and Dallas. Of course, the goal that ended their season came on a Dallas power play they couldn't withstand. The Sharks' own power play, on the other hand, wasn't very special at all.

The Sharks' ability to move the puck up the ice from the back line was also stellar at the end of the regular season, particularly after acquiring defenseman Brian Campbell. But aggressive Dallas forechecking forced a number of turnovers in San Jose's end, and just as significantly, slowed their transition game. San Jose never looked comfortable on offense the entire series.

From an even more basic view, the Sharks didn't seem to handle defensive pressure very well while they allowed far too much space to opposing scorers like Brenden Morrow, Mike Ribeiro, Brad Richards and Mike Modano. Morrow, in particular, was particularly tough with four goals and an assist.

And what of the players? While Sharks stars Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau turned in valiant Game 6 performances, they didn't have tangible results to show for them. Thornton didn't score a goal against Dallas and had just three assists. He'll have to answer all those "soft" questions again. Marleau scored twice but had no assists. Jonathan Cheechoo scored in the series opener but not again. Jeremy Roenick was blanked all six games.

If these players aren't scoring, who's going to do it?

Milan Michalek notched four goals before being knocked out of the final game, but Michalek can't carry a team. There's no question Dallas' star players outplayed San Jose's, and while the Sharks may have taken more shots in Game 6, but the Stars had far better shots and would have won the game earlier had it not been for Evgeni Nabokov's spectacular goaltending.

In the end, despite the tight nature of the series, no objective observer would have viewed San Jose as the better team. Dallas was better in every aspect — talent, tactics, execution, effort. The Stars deserved to move on, and the Sharks deserved to go back to the drawing board.

This time, you hope they really draw up something new.

Contact Carl Steward at (510) 293-2451 or csteward@bayareanewsgroup.com.