Before Wednesday night’s stunning 5-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, the San Jose Sharks were part of an unfortunate six-team NHL subculture never to have made the Stanley Cup Finals.
Well, the Sharks voluntarily left that cursed group and are now heading to the 2016 Cup Finals where they’ll face either the Tampa Bay Lightning or Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 on Monday.
First-year head coach Peter DeBoer, who took over for Todd McLellan after San Jose snapped its 10-year run of consecutive postseason appearances with a 40-33 record last season, is back in contention for the Cup after a four-year absence. DeBoer took the New Jersey Devils to the finals in 2012 in his first season with the club as well.
Even though he’s spent just one yet-to-be-completed season in the Bay Area, DeBoer was certainly aware of San Jose’s failures to reach the NHL’s inner championship circle.
“You guys keep asking about it, writing about it,” DeBoer told reporters prior to Game 6. “It’s hard to ignore.
“We’ve been in that mode - that this is the most important game - for a while now. We were treading water around Christmas. There were some days where you wondered whether we would find our grove.
“When you’re fighting for your playoff life right until the end, fighting for position in the playoffs, playing the L.A. Kings in the first round, every game has been the most important next game. That’s nothing new to us.”
What's been new is the resurgence behind Joe Pavelski. The 31-year-old center has 13 goals in 18 playoff games, while no teammate has more than eight and no other NHL player has more than 11. Goalie Martin Jones has been stellar, closing out the Nashville Predators in Game 7 with a shut out, and then adding two more shutouts against the St. Louis Blues.
It's a refreshing change of pace in Northern California.
Formed in 1991, San Jose’s been one of the more consistent competitors in the entire NHL but couldn’t bust out of playoff purgatory. Over 24 seasons, the Sharks have missed the postseason only six times, and since 2003 just once. And only the Chicago Blackhawks, who have won three of the last six Cups, have won more playoff series than San Jose since the 2004-2005 lockout-cancelled season.
The Sharks made their first ever conference final under McLellan’s predecessor, Ron Wilson, in 2004 but fell to Calgary in six games. They’d make the postseason every year over the next nine seasons and had two more consecutive opportunities to win the West, but were swept by eventual champion Chicago in 2010 and bounced by Vancouver in five games the next year.
Consistent success but failure in the postseason was most evident in 2008-2009’s run for the President’s Trophy that ultimately resulted in a first-round loss to Anaheim in six games. San Jose led the NHL with a still-franchise-best 117 points and were ranked in the top 10 in both scoring and goals allowed before the meltdown.
All that’s behind them, and stars like Patrick Marleau, who’s called San Jose home since he was taken No. 2 overall in the 1997 draft (just after Boston took now teammate Joe Thornton No. 1), can revel as the franchise reaches the NHL’s apex of greatness.
“Being here my whole career, and being around the city and all the fans, all of their support over the year, it’s great to see. They deserve it,” the 36-year-old Marleau said after Game 6.
“We’re just enjoying the ride right now,” Marleau added. “We’ve had some really good teams over the years. ... This team’s a little bit different.”
This team certainly is different but in the best possible way and certainly not by chance.
A long-struggling team that’s failed to get over that final hump all of sudden finding success is often chalked up to luck, but San Jose pushed past a gauntlet of West powers and luck had nothing to do with it. Five West teams finished the regular season with a higher point total than the Sharks, and they went out and beat three of them (Kings, Predators, Blues).
Thornton, who at 36 is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career with three goals and 15 assists in the postseason, is quick to point out that the Sharks aren’t content.
"This is not the end goal," Thornton said. "I'll tell you that right now."