All it took was a quarter century of blood, sweat and playoff anguish. Finally, the San Jose Sharks will play in a Stanley Cup final. They came home to the SAP Center for Game 6 of their Western Conference final Wednesday night against the St. Louis Blues. Whereas previous incarnations of the Sharks may have crumbled under the pressure, the 2015-16 version showed killer instinct right away. They took the lead on a Joe Pavelski goal 3:57 into the first period and never relinquished it, winning 5-2, weathering a mini-storm from the Blues in the third.
The San Jose Sharks arrived on the NHL scene in 1991-92, kicking off the NHL's Sun Belt expansion. The early years were ugly as can be, with the Sharks winning 28 game over their first two seasons combined, joining the Mount Rushmore of awful hockey teams with the 1974-75 Washington Capitals and the 1992-93 Ottawa Senators. The Sharks awakened as a relevant team in 1993-94 under coach Kevin Constantine when they upset the Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the playoffs and have been a competitive franchise ever since, making the post-season in 18 their past 22 campaigns. But they were perpetually the so-close-yet-so far team, losing three times in the Western Conference final, twice during Jumbo Joe Thornton's prime. Coach Ron Wilson couldn't get them over the top. Todd McLellan couldn't do it.
But, finally, the Sharks are Stanley Cup finalists. They toppled the St. Louis Blues in six games, shutting down St. Louis' most dangerous forwards, especially Vladimir Tarasenko, whose lone goals game with the score 4-0 in Game 6. The Sharks' elite players shone through, especially Pavelski, who scored his 13th goal of the playoffs in Game 6 and has to be the Conn Smythe Trophy frontrunner right now.
Not bad for a team that missed the playoffs one year ago and gave its GM, Doug Wilson, what was probably his final chance to build a contender. He brought in coach Peter DeBoer, someone who took the New Jersey Devils to a Stanley Cup final the only year he had high-end talent to work with on his roster. Wilson signed playoff warrior Joel Ward and steady veteran blueliner Paul Martin. Wilson traded for a new No. 1 goaltender in Martin Jones.
I can't help but remember speaking with center Logan Couture last summer after the playoff miss. He was devastated by it, but he felt infused with confidence because of Wilson's moves.
“I talked to Doug a couple times throughout the summer, and we want to win,” Couture said at the time. “San Jose does. That’s our goal. We realize our best players, Jumbo and Patty (Marleau), are getting a little bit older. I think we have the core to win, and Doug went out and got some very good players. Paul, Martin Jones, Joel, they’re just going to help us.”
A year later, DeBoer's team has turned it around. Ward has elevated his play in the post-season like he always does. He delivered two goals in Wednesday's series-clinching Game 6. Martin formed a dynamite pair with Norris Trophy finalist Brent Burns all year long. Jones delivered when called upon to make enough saves to win, even if that wasn't too often. His second-period stop on Jori Lehtera with the score 2-0 was crucial Wednesday night.
Whatever happens to the 2015-16 Sharks in the Stanley Cup final, the franchise is in uncharted territory, and the season is a resounding success. Pavelski, Burns and Thornton own this year with their wire-to-wire, MVP-caliber performances, but credit belongs to the forgotten man: Wilson. He took his one last shot at fixing a veteran group, and his personnel changes complemented this team in a big way.
It's a fun story for a likeable Sharks team, one that hated the feeling of sitting idle last spring after missing the post-season. Flashing back again to the conversation with Couture, in which revealed how he and Thornton were coping:
“We were golfing, and we both talked about how much this sucks, how we don’t want this to happen again,” Couture said. “It makes you hungrier and hungrier, and we’re ready to get an extra serving right now.”
He and the Sharks backed up the talk. Now they await the winner of Thursday's Game 7 between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins. Wednesday's losing team, the St. Louis Blues, also had a banner year but enter an off-season full of uncertainty. Will captain David Backes and coach Ken Hitchcock return? Those are important questions – for another day. Now's the time to toast the Sharks. Stanley Cup final games are coming to the Silicon Valley, folks.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin