SAN JOSE, Calif. - As soon as the San Jose Sharks were swept out of the Western Conference final a year ago, coach Todd McLellan's message was the importance of growth.
After an up-and-down regular season, a few tough moments in the first round of the playoffs against Los Angeles and the survival after a near collapse in the second round against Detroit, the Sharks are back in the conference final for the second straight year.
Starting on Sunday in Vancouver when they open the series against the Canucks, they will get the chance to take that next step as they try to make it to the Stanley Cup final for the first time in franchise history.
"You'll remember we were all talking about getting to that series against Chicago and if we didn't do anything with it this year we would have lost a growth opportunity," McLellan said. "There were times this year early when we weren't doing anything with it. As it turns out we're right back at that spot again. We'd like to take it a step forward."
The journey back to the conference final was not an easy one. There was a six-game losing streak in January that dropped the Sharks into 12th place in the conference before an impressive second-half turnaround saved the season.
There was the four-goal deficit the team needed to overcome in Game 3 at Los Angeles in the first round and two home losses to the Kings.
Then came the epic seven-game series with the Red Wings, which had a record six games decided by one goal. While the games were all tight, the series was more of a roller-coaster. San Jose won the first three games, including two in overtime, to seemingly take control.
But the Sharks lost Game 4 and then blew a pair of third-period leads the next two games to move to the brink of becoming just the fourth NHL team to lose a series after winning the first three games.
San Jose managed to hold on for a 3-2 victory Thursday night to eliminate the Red Wings on the fourth try and set up a conference final matchup with the Canucks.
"We were in this exact same position last year," defenceman Dan Boyle said. "We got to this point. The team started the season talking about growth. This is where we start growing, from here now, because we were here last year. We got here a different way, but we were still here. This is where we need to grow. I think the seven-game series, although it was pretty stressful and not the way you want to win, I think that's something that's going to help us in the end."
This marks San Jose's third trip to the conference final. They lost in six games to Edmonton in 2004 and were swept last year by the Blackhawks after knocking out Detroit in the second round.
That series was closer than the final outcome with Chicago winning a pair of one-goal games and getting an empty-netter in the final minute of the clincher to win 4-2.
"We got to the conference final last year. Everybody seems to forget that," captain Joe Thornton said. "Hopefully we can grow. We'll see how the series plays out. We've been here before and we'd like to get past this point."
The Game 7 victory was noteworthy for many reasons, but perhaps most importantly because of the play of Thornton and Patrick Marleau. The two stars have been the face of this franchise in recent years and shoulder the criticism when the team has fallen short in the post-season.
There were three straight second-round exits in 2006-08, a first-round debacle against Anaheim in 2009 after posting the best record in the league in the regular season and then last year's conference final loss.
But Thornton and Marleau teamed up to avoid an even bigger collapse in Game 7 against the Red Wings. Thornton dominated the first period at both ends of the ice, setting up Devin Setoguchi's power-play goal and helping the Sharks take a 2-0 lead.
Marleau then delivered at the end, poking home a rebound with 7:47 to play for his first point of the series and the eventual game-winner and then breaking up Detroit's final scoring chance in the closing seconds to seal the win.
"I think month by month we've learned a lot," Thornton said. "Last night was a good feeling, obviously. We had Detroit where we wanted them, but we let them back in the series, but we finished them off last night. It was a good feeling. I think we're growing. We'll see."
The Sharks are now facing a team that also has been considered a disappointment in the playoffs in the past and nearly blew a 3-0 series lead this year before eliminating a nemesis. The Canucks had to go to overtime in Game 7 to beat the Blackhawks 2-1 in the clincher after being eliminated the previous two years by Chicago.
Vancouver knows well that feeling of relief that was evident in San Jose.
"It's the exact same situation without the overtime dramatics," Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo said. "It's not an easy position to be in, but it's so much more gratifying once you do get through it and they showed a lot of character by getting through that game."
AP freelancer Kevin Woodley contributed to this report from Vancouver, British Columbia.