After years of heartbreak, San Jose Sharks finally get long-awaited trip to Stanley Cup finals

ByPierre LeBrun ESPN logo
Thursday, May 26, 2016

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- They sat side by side by side at the news conference podium, three of the last four captains of the San Jose Sharks, the guys who have tried so many times to get to this very point with this very team.

Some 19 years in the making for Patrick Marleau since the Sharks drafted him. More than a decade for Joe Thornton since the blockbuster trade brought him here. And 10 years for Joe Pavelski since he played his first game for this franchise.

Finally -- a trip to the Stanley Cup finals.

"We're just enjoying the ride right now," said Marleau, the specks of gray in his playoff beard reminding us of the very long journey. "We've had some really good teams over the years. Like Joe was saying, this team is a little bit different. The confidence we've built over the regular season and now in the playoffs -- I think winning on the road helped us get close as a group during the regular season. It carried over into the playoffs so far. Just having each other's back out there, working for each other."

Wednesday night's 5-2 win over the St. Louis Blues at SAP Center won them the Western Conference finals in six games and a berth in the NHL's championship series.

After all these years of being picked to win the Stanley Cup, it figures they finally get there in the season in which nobody did.

Especially for Thornton and Marleau -- the most tenured Sharks who have bore the brunt of this franchise's playoff failures -- this night surely heals some wounds.

"I can't put it into words because I can't imagine," San Jose head coach Peter DeBoer said of Thornton and Marleau, two stars who had the "C" stripped off them during a decade of drama in these parts. "I can't imagine, because all I've seen them is the year I've spent with them and how hard these guys work every day, how committed they are, how badly they want to win.

"I don't think that's changed over the last 10 years. I just think for whatever reason it hasn't come together. So I can't imagine the stuff written about them and said about them that they've had to deal with. It's a great night for those guys."

Two years ago in this very building, it was the worst of nights. The Sharks dressing room was a morgue after a Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Kings.

It felt like the end of the run for this Sharks core after a decade of contending, the final nail in the coffin of a great team that just couldn't ever find the final pathway.

Losing to the hated Kings after being up 3-0 in the series, how do you recover from that?

"That was as low as you can get as a professional athlete, individually and team-wise," Sharks center Logan Couture said in a room full of smiles on Wednesday night. "Then last year, obviously [it was a] tough time missing the playoffs and going through some stuff as a team. I really think everything we've gone through has made us a lot stronger as a group -- the core guys, the guys we brought in. Doug [Wilson] did a great job this summer, this season. A lot of credit needs to go to him for the guys he brought in."

No question, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson deserves praise for the way in which he retooled this team instead of blowing it up. There are 10 new faces on this team from the one that lost to the Kings two years ago.

The free-agent signings of Joonas Donskoi, Paul Martin and Joel Ward last summer were instrumental, and the aggressive trade for goalie Martin Jones less than a week after L.A. had dealt him to the Boston Bruins, well, that was the icing on the cake.

There were Donskoi and Ward finding the back of the net on Wednesday night in the clinching game, with two goals, in fact, for the veteran Ward to hammer home the point of the newfound depth that put the Sharks over the top.

"Last year, when I was watching the postseason, Wardy was a huge part of Washington. I think they miss him this year," Thornton said.

"You saw again tonight, when the game gets a little bit more important, Wardy always shows up and has a big game."

And don't forget the hiring of DeBoer as head coach before all of those player additions last summer. Todd McLellan is a heck of a coach and brought this team to a pair of conference finals during his run here. But it was time for a fresh voice, as McLellan would be the first to tell you,.

Enter DeBoer, now 6-1 in playoff series during his NHL coaching career. One of the things DeBoer has done this season is hit the reset button; he's helped this team forget its past and focus on the present.

But one can argue the past has helped forge the identity of this team too. The lessons learned were painful: missing the playoffs last season, the sore feelings, another captaincy change. But perhaps the Sharks wouldn't have gotten here on this night without having to live through the gamut of emotions over two years.

"It's hard to say," said the current captain, Pavelski, he of the 13 playoff goals in 18 games. "Every year is different. Every team is different. You try to learn from experiences. You like to not have to, but that's the course we've taken. Now that we're here, again, this was a great step for us. It was another step. It was fun out there tonight. It was exciting. The building was great. The fans were great.

"But we realize there's more out there. That's what we're going to turn our attention to."

And that will be the great test for this Sharks team: While making the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in franchise history is a swell thing, losing it would take away some of the shine.

DeBoer should know, having taken the underdog New Jersey Devils to the dance in 2012, before getting thumped by the Kings. It was a bitter ending to a great run.

"Pete came in and said, 'Enjoy this, but as soon as tomorrow comes, forget about this and move on,"' Couture said of the coach's postgame address in the room. "He's been here before in the same spot. And they came out and lost the first three [games]. You got to move on and get ready for the next one.

"At the end of the day, if we don't go on and win that next series, this really doesn't mean anything."

No offense to that 2012 Devils team that had zero chance of beating the Kings, but this feels different for a Sharks team that has the goods to take it all.

The Sharks dispatched a mighty good Blues team in the Western Conference finals. They sent the two-time Stanley Cup champion Kings packing in just five games in the opening round.

A Stanley Cup championship looks within reach. After all those years of teasing their fans, now it's the real deal.

The crowd at the Shark Tank on Wednesday night roared like it never had before. It's a roar that's been building for more than a generation in the San Francisco Bay Area.

"Took a few quick looks around just to see everyone standing and cheering," Couture said. "You could hear 'em. They've been through a lot. It's been a long time that we've been the favorite. They've had a lot of high hopes, and a lot of people have stuck with this franchise and supported over the years.

"So, a lot of credit to the people that have had season tickets and kept them through these last couple of years. They deserve this."

So do the Sharks.

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