San Jose Sharks fans (myself included) are rejoicing after a quarter-century of disappointment and the various memes associated with choking in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Each early exit seemed to magnify in its scale, culminating with the crushing 2014 reverse-sweep by the rival Los Angeles Kings and that team's subsequent Stanley Cup win. This painful history made Wednesday's clinching Game 6 victory at the Shark Tank a cathartic experience for the teal-clad faithful.
The Sharks always seemed to have a piece or two missing that prevented them from getting past the best in the West, but Doug Wilson's strategic acquisitions since last summer filled key holes without the complete teardown-and-rebuild that many fans desired after last season's playoff miss. Coach Peter DeBoer brought a new system into San Jose, and Martin Jones provided a steadier presence in net. Joel Ward emerged as a playoff hero, dazzling Sharks fans with some tenacious highlight-reel goals.
The free-agent signing of Joonas Donskoi last summer fell well under the mainstream hockey radar (he had been drafted by the Panthers in 2010 but stayed in Finland), but Joonas' speed and offensive creativity came to the forefront this season. Wilson also made a few depth acquisitions at the trade deadline by taking advantage of the Toronto Maple Leafs' implosion and grabbing Roman Polak, Nick Spaling, and James Reimer. The resulting roster balance has carried San Jose into an historic first Stanley Cup Finals appearance.
The Seattle Connection
Seattle Thunderbirds fans have a couple of reasons to jump on the Sharks' bandwagon: two prominent alumni have played critical roles in the team's Cup run.
Patrick Marleau is one of the most prolific T-Birds alumni, having played over 1,500 regular season and playoff games with San Jose after a standout two-year WHL career with Seattle. He led the Birds to the 1997 Western Hockey League Finals against Lethbridge and was drafted second overall in 1997 behind current teammate Joe Thornton. Marleau has become synonymous with hockey in both Seattle and San Jose; after all, those are the only two cities in which he has played in his entire career. He served as the Sharks' captain in the mid-2000s and led the team through its regular season ups and playoff downs, attracting both praise and some criticism along the way. With a more balanced team around him, Marleau has contributed offensively but the weight is no longer squarely on his shoulders. Sharks (and T-Birds) fans hope that Marleau will be able to punctuate his long career in San Jose with a Stanley Cup victory.
Yours truly with Brenden Dillon last November after a practice in San Jose
Meanwhile, on the blue line, Brenden Dillon is one of the first Thunderbirds from the Showare Center era to reach The Show (pun obviously intended, sorry) after signing as a free agent with Dallas. Although he was not a top prospect in the WHL, Dills started to hit his stride more in the pros and earned a permanent spot on the Stars' roster after the 2012 NHL lockout. A November 2014 trade brought him to the then-struggling Sharks, who were on their way to missing the playoffs for the first time in eleven seasons. Dillon brings toughness and occasional fireworks with his fists, as evidenced by his dustup with Carl Gunnarsson near the end of the Sharks' Game 4 loss to St. Louis.
The Sharks will face a very balanced Penguins team in the Stanley Cup Finals, a squad with experience and depth down their entire lineup. The Pens were able to come back from a 3-2 deficit and bounce the defending Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Besides obvious superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Leafs refugee Phil Kessel has led Pittsburgh with 18 points in the playoffs anchoring the second line. Unlikely heroes have surfaced for the Penguins in the conference finals: Bryan Rust had two goals in Game 7, while goaltender Matt Murray emerged as the go-to netminder in relief of Marc-Andre Fleury.
The series will definitely be a barn burner between two solid hockey clubs!