PITTSBURGH – On the eve of the Stanley Cup final, one of the goofiest questions to ponder is this one: Why in the world can’t the San Jose Sharks ever do much against the Buffalo Sabres?
While the Pittsburgh Penguins have beaten Buffalo eight straight times, the Sabres are 9-0-1 in their last 10 games against the Western Conference champion Sharks. So what gives?
“I don’t know. I just don’t,” forward Logan Couture, an Ontario native who is a huge Bills fan, said here Sunday. “I was a Sabres fan growing up and I’d sure like to know why as well. I hear about it on Twitter all the time. There’s just been something about that team. It’s hard to know what it is.”
Buffalo had won eight straight in the series until San Jose’s 2-1 overtime win Nov. 12 in First Niagara Center. The Sabres then rebounded to post a 3-1 win Feb. 26 in SAP Center that was their fifth straight in San Jose.
“Hey we beat them this year so that’s twice in 11 years,” center Joe Thornton said with a pained smile. Until this year’s OT win, the Sharks’ last triumph over Buffalo came in Thornton’s debut with the team on Dec. 2, 2005.
“They’re good,” Thornton said of the Sabres, as reporters around him burst out laughing over a Buffalo team that hasn’t made the playoffs in five years. “Well, they play us hard. They really do. We were lucky to beat them in overtime this year. I don’t know. What a weird streak. We couldn’t beat them in 10 years. It just shows the parity in this game is incredible.”
The Sabres’ run against San Jose has featured victories on some bizarre nights on the home schedule.
Buffalo beat the Sharks in a shootout in 2009 on the emotional night after the crash of Continental Flight 3407 in Clarence and dumped them again the next year on the anniversary of the crash.
San Jose was also the visitor on the night in 2014 when Ryan Miller and Steve Ott were traded an hour before faceoff and was in town nine months later to lose to the Sabres before a half-empty house on the day South Buffalo and some of the suburbs were buried in seven feet of snow.
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang and forward Nick Bonino sat out practice Sunday. Pens coach Mike Sullivan said Bonino should play in Game One. Letang’s status was not directly addressed by the coach but the team said both players sat out with maintenance days. Neither were available to reporters during Media Day interview sessions.
Bonino, who blocked a shot from Tampa Bay’s Jonathon Drouin in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference final, has missed two straight workouts. Letang played 28:13 in the East clincher and there was no indication of any injury at that time. Justin Schultz took his spot on the top power play Sunday.
Veteran Sharks forward Dainius Zubrus got to the final as a rookie in 1997 with Philadelphia and needed to wait until 2012 with New Jersey to get back. Now he’s got a third shot at a Cup after losing in the first two series. What’s the biggest regret of his career? The 2007 Sabres.
Zubrus was former General Manager Darcy Regier’s chief trade deadline acquisition that year and he played a key role in shutting down Jaromir Jagr as the Sabres held off the New York Rangers in a six-game, second-round series. But the Sabres’ Presidents Trophy season ended with a disappointing five-game loss to Ottawa in the Eastern Conference final.
“The Buffalo team to be honest with you I think at the time it was the best team that I had been on,” said Zubrus, 37. “It’s hard to say why we didn’t go further than we did. That team was very balanced. There was a lot of skill, a lot of speed, our six ‘D’ were as good as anybody really, our goaltending too. For whatever reason, we lost to Ottawa. They played good, won a couple games at out home in overtime, we gave them some power plays and that was it for us.”
Zubrus had four goals and four assists in 19 games for the Sabres in 2007. He had eight assists but no goals while appearing in 15 playoff games that spring. He has played in only nine of San Jose’s 19 playoff games this spring. Zubrus’ 2012 Devils were a No. 6 seed in the East and lost the Cup final to Los Angeles, which was No. 8 in the West that season.
“We had talent in New Jersey but you have to play well at the right time,” Zubrus said. “Buffalo was the top team. You just never know about getting to the final. It’s so hard to win a series. And never mind winning a game, you’re just trying to win a shift. Get momentum, get into the offensive zone.”
Thornton spent plenty of time talking to the media about his first Cup final appearance in 18 years – but also about his lavish beard that he’s been growing since December in concert with defenseman Brent Burns.
“My brother John always has a huge beard so I’m kind of following him and Burnzie’s footsteps,” Thornton said. “I’ve got two mentors that have bigger ones than me so I can look up to them. I said earlier it’s day to day so I could come tomorrow and it could be gone but I could come 10 years for now and still have it. We’ll see.”
Thornton said Burns has helped him get hair oil and beard combs to deal with the massive growth.
“In the morning you get up, you’ve got to oil it a little bit, comb it a little bit,” said a grinning Thornton. “At night, you’ve got to take care of it. You’ve got to oil it and comb it. It looks pretty but it’s hard work. You have to keep after it. We got a new cat recently and she loves putting her paws in it but other than that, I don’t think it’s very nice personally.”