For the first time in franchise history, the San Jose Sharks are heading to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Sharks hardly have the history that some of the greatest franchises in the NHL possess, but this trip to the Finals still seems like it was a long time coming for San Jose. The Sharks have made the playoffs in all but six years throughout their 25-year history, yet they have never made it to the Finals. At times, it seemed like they were cursed, barred even from playing for hockey’s highest honor.
Who can forgot the 2011 playoffs when the Sharks lost to the Canucks in the Conference Finals on a goal no one aside from then-Vancouver Canuck Kevin Bieksa was able to track? Then there is the pain from the 2014 playoffs, when the Sharks blew a 3-0 lead in the first round to fall in seven games to the Los Angeles Kings. There were the 2010 playoffs when the Sharks made quick work of the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings only to get swept in the Conference Finals by the Chicago Blackhawks.
But on Wednesday night, these Sharks finally made it over the hump. They are one of the NHL’s two best teams this season, and they have a real chance of becoming this year’s Cup champions. Here are five of the biggest reasons why this Sharks team is one of the most exciting San Jose squads in years.
Article continues below ...
The Sharks have a lineup that can score from top to bottom. The first line boasts the NHL’s leading goal-scorer in this year’s playoffs, Joe Pavelski, while the second line owns the leading point-scorer in the playoffs, Logan Couture. The third line is dangerous as well, especially with Joel Ward heating up with four goals in his last two games.
The fourth line might not boast the same scoring totals as the first three, but they can chip in when necessary. In Game 2 of the Conference Finals, it was the fourth line that helped pace the team both on offense and on the penalty kill. That depth throughout means no shift is easy for an opposing team, and it is incredibly helpful should any of San Jose’s stars struggle on a given night.
While San Jose’s scorers make headlines for their offense, their contributions defensively are key to the team’s success. The Sharks work just as hard on the backcheck as they do forechecking, and that has helped the Sharks allow the second fewest shots-against-per-game (27.1) so far throughout the playoffs. The only team better than the Sharks in shots-against these playoffs are the Kings, whose 26.6 shots-against is somewhat skewed given that they played in just five playoff games.
St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock acknowledged that the Sharks’ backcheck was deadly in his post-game press conference Wednesday.
A strong backcheck is proof of a team that buys in to the concept of a team effort and a team win. Given that it takes a thorough team effort rather than individual stars to win a Cup, these Sharks look well-positioned entering the Finals.
The Sharks have a strong veteran presence in players such as Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Those players have long been staples of this San Jose team, but there are also veterans who bring their experience from other cities to the Sharks line-up, such as Joel Ward and Paul Martin.
But then there are some young players to provide fresh attitudes and bodies. Goaltender Martin Jones, who has three shutouts this postseason, is one of those players as is forward Joonas Donskoi.
And while coach Pete DeBoer is new to the Sharks, he is not new to the Cup Finals. DeBoer helped the New Jersey Devils to the Cup Finals in 2012 before the Devils fell to the Kings. He knows what it means to coach for hockey’s highest honors, but he also provides this team with a fresh outlook. That mix makes this team as well-rounded as possible.
This Sharks team possesses a key element their teams of years past have lacked: a killer instinct. The Sharks have proven they can finish off games and series both under pressure and when they have some wiggle room.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Sharks had a commanding three-games-to-one lead over the Kings entering Game 5. It would have been easy to take a breather in that game, and in the second period, it seemed like the Sharks were doing just that. They blew a 3-0 lead by allowing three goals in the second period to the Kings to enter the third period tied 3-3. But the Sharks were able to ramp up the pressure again and finish off the Kings on the strength of a three-goal third period to eliminate L.A. via a 6-3 win.
In the second round, the Sharks were stuck in a back-and-forth series against the Predators. After a tough, triple-overtime loss to the Preds in Game 4, the Sharks came back in Game 5 to blow out Nashville by a 5-1 score. The Sharks lost another overtime game in Game 6, forcing the series to a decisive Game 7, and San Jose responded with an impressive effort as they dismantled Nashville, 5-0, to win the series.
Then there was the Conference Finals. It is incredibly difficult for the team leading the series to win a Game 6 when a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals and the season is on the line for the trailing team. But San Jose was thorough throughout the majority of Wednesday’s Game 6, taking a 4-0 lead with 12 minutes left in the game then recovering from two goals-against to ice their win with an empty-netter.
These Sharks close games out. They close series out. That killer instinct is essential for every Cup hopeful, and these Sharks have it.
For as much as physical assets are important to success in athletics, emotions and mentality play a large role as well. The Sharks are full of players who have faced adversity and are willing to sacrifice whatever necessary to win.
Two of those players are Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Each player once served as a Sharks captain – Marleau from 2004-09 and Thornton from 2010-14. Both were eventually stripped of their captaincy, a move which tends to be enough to cause a player to look for a new place to play. But both stayed with the Sharks, putting their personal egos aside for the sake of the team.
Throughout their years in San Jose, Marleau and Thornton have been ripped apart by local columnists and fans, but they ignored the outside noise and kept working on the ice. Now the pair are a big reason why the Sharks are in the finals. Thornton ranks fourth on the team in scoring with 18 points (three goals, 15 assists) in 18 games. Marleau ranks right behind Thornton with 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in eight games. They help provide leadership for the team and serve as players to rally around, creating the desire among the team to win it for guys like Thornton and Marleau.
The extra motivation helps both the individual and the entire team, especially when the outside noise around this team grows in the Cup Finals. And given that Thornton and Marleau have both overcome adversity before, they can help guide the team should times get tough as they attempt to win four final games this year.