PITTSBURGH – A Stanley Cup final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks would have been no surprise from about 2010 to 2014. Both teams had stacked lineups and were putting up 100-point seasons with regularity until stumbling in the playoffs. In fact, they combined for a trio of conference final appearances in that stretch – but went 1-12 in losing the three series.
Then they stopped going deep in the postseason and their championship windows appeared to be closing.
The Penguins fired current Sabres coach Dan Bylsma after blowing a 3-1 lead to the Rangers in the second round in 2014 and were first-round fodder for the Blueshirts last year. The Sharks finally jettisoned Todd McLellan after last spring’s outright playoff miss came on the heels of their historic collapse, when they lost a series to Los Angeles after winning the first three games.
It was clear both teams needed some retooling. San Jose General Manager Doug Wilson, the first captain of the expansion Sharks in 1991, seemed to be on borrowed time. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford had wolves circling after his first season ended last year, with plenty of questions of whether he was simply too old to navigate the new-age NHL.
Progress seemed slow even into this season. When the new year turned, neither team seemed on the June radar. And that’s even after Rutherford fired coach Mike Johnston and promoted Mike Sullivan from the AHL to take over in December.
But after huge second-half showings and three wild rounds of playoffs, here they are. Penguins vs. Sharks. Four wins away from a Stanley Cup.
The Flying Sidney Crosbys are back in the final for the first time since Bylsma & Co. beat Detroit in 2009, while the Sharks are first-timers. Game One is Monday night in Consol Energy Center and it should be the kind of series the NHL will like, with plenty of skating and offense.
The star power is certainly evident. There’s Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and even enigmatic Phil Kessel leading the way for the Black and Gold. The Sharks are finally giving 18-year veterans Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau a trip to the final, and Joe Pavelski has emerged as a leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Norris Trophy finalist Brent Burns is battling Thornton for the title of best playoff beard of all-time but that shouldn’t overshadow the Teal Tower he’s become on the San Jose blueline.
These teams are a story of two seasons within one. On Jan. 7, both had lost more games than they had won. The Sharks were 18-18-2 and 13th in the Western Conference while the Penguins were 19-16-5 and 11th in the East.
The Penguins went 27-9-1 in their last 37 games and were the hottest team in hockey from Feb. 1 on, while the Sharks had a strong second half as well with a 25-12-4 mark. It simply took time for the new mixes around the teams’ cores to mesh.
Sullivan let his best players skate and Crosby was reborn. No. 87 had just two goals in the season’s first 18 games and his team often looked disjointed. Look no further than their 4-3 home win over the Sabres on Oct. 30, an awful performance that saw Buffalo pepper them with 53 shots on goal as now third-string goaltender Jeff Zatkoff essentially stood on his head.
By the end of the season, Crosby (36 goals) and Malkin (27) didn’t have to be relied on for all the offense as the line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel became another weapon. The Penguins overcame the Rangers, Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals and defending East champion Lightning to get here.
The Sharks, meanwhile, flew under the radar much of the season with Anaheim and Los Angeles battling in the Pacific Division. It seemed reasonable to think they were first-round meat against whichever team finished second in the division but they surprised the Kings in five games and then outlasted Nashville in seven before winning the West final over St. Louis in six.
Items to note as the final gets cranked up:
• The schedule: Media Day is Sunday in Consol, which will be hosting its first Cup final. The Penguins’ previous four trips were played at old Mellon Arena, now a parking lot next door. Games One and Two are Monday and Wednesday, respectively, before the series heads West to SAP Center in San Jose.
There will be four two-day breaks in the series, a decision made before the Sharks advanced and more in deference to television and avoiding head-to-head conflicts with the NBA Finals than to travel. So that means the teams and fans could be locked in for a marathon, with a potential Game Seven in Pittsburgh on June 15. It could also allow for enough recovery time for injured players to stay in the lineup when the inevitable bumps and bruises occur.
• The work of the GMs: Rutherford made big offseason deals for Kessel and Bonino and really filled out his club during the year by getting Hagelin from Anaheim and defenseman Trevor Daley from Chicago in deals for veterans who weren’t working with new teams. Daley, however, will miss the final after suffering a broken ankle against Tampa Bay. Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Matt Murray all came up from the AHL during the season and now hold key roles.
Wilson brought in Peter DeBoer as coach to replace McLellan and DeBoer has replicated his 2012 run in New Jersey, bringing a team that was out of the playoffs to the Cup final in his first season as coach. Wilson also added Washington stalwart Joel Ward, made a key deal for goaltender Martin Jones and added free-agent defenseman Paul Martin.
• Connections: Pittsburgh found its stride under Sullivan, who had not been a head coach since he was fired in Boston in 2006. A star player who was traded that season and wasn’t happy with his coach? Thornton, the former No. 1 overall pick and team captain of the Bruins who said he was blindsided by his trade West. One of Wilson’s best moves was signing Martin to a four-year, $19.4 million deal – after Martin had spent the previous five years in Pittsburgh.
• In the nets: Murray, now entrenched in the crease in the wake of Marc-Andre Fleury’s concussion, didn’t get his first call-up from the minors until 10 days before Christmas and is now sparking talk of Ken Dryden (1971) and Patrick Roy (1986) as first-year goalies suddenly emerging in the playoffs. Jones had been living in the shadows of Jonathan Quick as a backup in Los Angeles before being acquired in a draft day trade through Boston.
• Silver celebrations: The Sharks are in their 25th anniversary season and it’s a history that began at Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo when Pat Falloon became their first-ever draft pick in 1991, chosen second overall. Falloon became the first player to publicly don the new teal jersey with the cartoonish logo that was an instant hit, and the building erupted as his selection came immediately after Eric Lindros opted not to go to the stage and put on the jersey of the Quebec Nordiques.
The expansion Sharks, then playing in the Cow Palace in San Francisco, went 17-58-5. The 1992-93 team set NHL records for losses (71) and consecutive losses (17) that still stand in an 11-71-2 disaster. A member of both of those teams? Current Pens coach Sullivan. What were the Mario Lemieux-led Penguins doing 25 years ago around this time? Beating the Minnesota North Stars for their first Cup.
• Another off the list: With the Sharks’ appearance, we are down to five teams that have never appeared in a Cup final: Winnipeg, Minnesota, Nashville, Arizona and Columbus. Among teams who have appeared in at least one final, the Sabres have the seventh-longest drought since losing to Dallas in 1999. They’re surpassed by Toronto (1967), St. Louis (1970), the New York Islanders (1984), Montreal (1993), Florida (1996) and Washington (1998).