Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 26, 2016

The Sharks Finally Show Their Teeth

Now we know that one of the two venues for this year’s Stanley Cup Finals will be the SAP Center in San Jose, known locally as the Shark Tank for the NHL franchise that is the arena’s primary tenant. When the Sharks beat the St. Louis Blues 5-2 Wednesday night in front of an ecstatic home crowd to clinch the Western Conference finals four games to two, they advanced to the Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history. By the end of the series with St. Louis there was little doubt that San Jose was the better team. The Sharks outscored the Blues 22-13, and even that statistic is deceptive since nearly half the St. Louis goals came in a 6-3 Game Four win after the Blues had suffered back-to-back shutouts.

San Jose amassed that scoring advantage despite outshooting St. Louis by an average of just two shots per game. That’s not an indication of an especially porous Blues defense; rather the swarming Sharks offense took advantage of scoring opportunities repeatedly throughout the series. This was especially true for San Jose’s top line. Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Tomas Hertl combined for 21 points over the six games. Pavelski now leads all scorers with 13 goals in the postseason and is second overall with 22 points heading into the Finals. He opened the scoring Wednesday less than four minutes into the first period by scooping up a loose puck off a missed shot by Thornton and tucking it in the corner of the net past St. Louis goaltender Brian Elliott.

On defense the Sharks played a strong checking game all over the ice. Vladimir Tarasenko, who led the Blues with 40 goals during the regular season, was completely shut out in the series until the final period of Game Six, when San Jose already led by 4-0. St. Louis also failed to capitalize on home ice, not just against the Sharks but throughout the playoffs. The Blues lost two of the three games played at the Scottrade Center in the Conference finals, including the crucial Game Five after rallying to even the series on the road in Game Four. Overall St. Louis finished with a 4-6 home record this postseason.

So in St. Louis the long wait will continue. In a series between two teams that have never won the Cup, a chance at history for one was always going to be offset by ongoing despair for the other. Still while the Blues haven’t been to the Finals since their third season in the league, well over four decades ago, at least they’ve been. Since entering the NHL at the start of the 1991-92 season San Jose has never reached the final round of the playoffs. That fact has been especially galling for the team’s fans, because during the regular season their heroes have performed reasonably well. In this century the Sharks have topped the Pacific Division six times and finished second another five. In the 2009-09 season San Jose captured the Presidents’ Trophy for the NHL’s best regular season record.

But regular season prowess has consistently turned to postseason ineptitude for the Sharks. Between 2004 and 2011 the team advanced to the Western Conference finals three times. In losing those series to the Flames, Blackhawks and Canucks, the Sharks won a total of just three games, picking the worst possible time to go dormant. That ignominy was compounded in 2014, a year in which San Jose equaled that collective win total with three postseason victories. Those wins came in Games One through Three of their first round series against the Los Angeles Kings. But after dominating the Kings and needing just one more win to advance, the Sharks proceeded to become just the fourth team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 playoff series lead. After that embarrassment there were likely some San Jose fans who didn’t mind when their team missed the postseason last year.

Now the Sharks are back and about to play for the Cup for the first time in the team’s twenty-five year history. It’s a triumph for the franchise, and a singular moment in the careers of Thornton and Patrick Marleau. The two 36-year olds have been teammates in San Jose for more than a decade, but they were figuratively connected even before that. In the 1997 NHL draft, Thornton was the top pick, taken by the Boston Bruins. Marleau was number two, drafted by the only NHL team whose sweater he has ever worn.

Both have been All-Stars multiple times. Thornton has a gold medal won as a member of Team Canada at the 2010 Olympics; Marleau has two, from 2010 and 2014. After eighteen years in San Jose, Marleau holds a passel of franchise records. Thornton’s 964 career assists rank him second among active players. But as the Bruins captain Thornton was blamed for Boston’s playoff failures, which included three straight first round losses prior to the 2004-05 lockout. The Bruins shipped him west early in the 2005-06 season as part of a four-player deal.

In San Jose both Thornton and Marleau have borne their share of criticism when year after year the promise of the regular season went a-glimmering. Now they have a chance to put all that behind them. They and the rest of the Sharks will face either Tampa Bay or Pittsburgh, an opponent that is as unknown as this is written Thursday evening as it will be familiar by the time many read these words on Friday. In what has been a strange NHL postseason, either the Lightning or the Penguins will play the role of the established Finals performer against the newly arrived Sharks.

A strange postseason indeed. Not a single Canadian franchise in the playoffs. All three Original Six teams that made the tournament, as well as both teams that have won five of the last six titles, eliminated in the opening round. But Tampa Bay at least won the Cup in 2004, and is trying to get to the Finals for the second consecutive year. Pittsburgh won twice during the Mario Lemiuex era, and now Sidney Crosby is trying to match Super Mario with a second title of his own. Whichever team emerges from Thursday’s Game Seven in the Eastern Conference finals will find Thornton, Marleau and the rest of the Sharks waiting. Two of the NHL’s best players to have never won a Cup, on the league’s best team in the last decade to have not claimed a title. Along with their fans in the biggest city by the Bay, all hoping to finally make some history of their own.

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