SAN JOSE -- Nobody tried to sugarcoat it.

The Sharks had just earned a spot on the wrong side of NHL history, dropping a 5-1 decision Wednesday night to the Los Angeles Kings and becoming only the fourth team ever to lose a seven-game playoff series after winning the first three.

On a franchise that has long had the reputation of being playoff failures even after reaching the Western Conference finals in successive years, this was the worst yet.

"Every year you lose is pretty low, but this one is a type of series that will rip your heart out," Logan Couture said. "It hurts. It's going to be a long summer thinking about this one and what we let slip away."

Captain Joe Thornton called the loss " just a tough pill to swallow" and didn't challenge the suggestion that even after years of playoff disappointments, this was the worst.

"It's just very, very tough right now," he said.

This game was not all that different from the three losses that preceded it, as San Jose's top players could not find their way onto the scoresheet and the Sharks special teams were anything but special.

Defenseman Matt Irwin -- playing only because top defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic was injured -- scored the Sharks' lone goal on Kings netminder Jonathan Quick.

At the other end of the ice, the Kings got goals from Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Tyler Toffoli off Antti Niemi, who was back in net after being benched in Game 6. Dustin Brown and Tanner Pearson added empty-net goals.

It was the second straight spring that San Jose's playoff dreams died with a Game 7 loss to its most bitter rival, and the defeat once again raises questions about the team's makeup from the top on down.

"You don't win, that's what happens. You've got to answer those questions," said Dan Boyle, who becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1 and might have played his final game as a Shark.

In addition to starting Niemi, coach Todd McLellan reverted back to the lines that were successful at the start of the series, moving Joe Pavelski back alongside Thornton and Brent Burns while reinserting Mike Brown into the lineup on the fourth line with Raffi Torres and Andrew Desjardins.

For a while, it seemed to be getting the Sharks back on track, as they outshot the Kings 14-9 in the first period and needed only 28 seconds of the second to take a 1-0 lead when Irwin snapped off a 49-foot shot that beat Quick through traffic.

It was the first time since Game 1 that San Jose got the game's first goal, but at 4:57 and with Couture in the penalty box after a questionable elbowing call, Los Angeles evened it up when Doughty scored off an odd-man rush.

San Jose had ample chances to regain the lead, benefiting from three successive power plays after that goal. But the closest the Sharks could come was a shot by Marleau at 9:32 that Quick managed to snare with his glove so deep in the crease that the play went to video review in Toronto.

The Kings took the lead at 18:39 of the middle period when Kopitar's backhand shot from the slot beat Niemi to make it 2-1.

Whatever comeback the Sharks were planning for the third period took a hit at 4:40 when Toffoli slipped behind the Sharks defense and lifted a shot over Niemi to make it 3-1.

The Sharks will do their annual post-mortem over the next few weeks, but McLellan didn't shy away from his role in the exit.

"When I look at it, I look at it as they fixed their problems, we didn't. Our problems got progressively worse as we went along," he said, adding later: "I'm in charge, I'm responsible for the group that performs on the ice. I have to accept that responsibility."

For more on the Sharks, see David Pollak's Working the Corners blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/sharks. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/PollakOnSharks.

INSIDE
S.J. squanders power-play chances; L.A. could see Sharks were shaken. PAGE 6

BAD COMPANY
The Sharks became fourth team in NHL playoff history to lose a series after leading 3-0. Here's their company:
Year Round RESULT
2014 Conf. quarterfinals Los Angeles def. Sharks
2010 Conf. semifinals Philadelphia def. Boston
1975 Quarterfinals N.Y. Islanders def. Pittsburgh
1942 Cup finals Toronto def. Detroit