It’s hard to put into words what the San Jose Sharks did on Wednesday night.
Newswires and sports shows will tell you that they clinched a spot in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in their 25-year history. But given the context of what the franchise has gone through — the playoff upsets, the tortured fanbase, the stigma of “perennial choker” — it was so much more.
It vanquished the notion that this team couldn’t win when it mattered most. It defeated the belief the Sharks would never reach the championship, no matter how talented, how skilled or how well-respected. It meant that Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, those old guys who just won’t leave, would get that chance to win the Cup that many thought had already slipped through their grasps.
It was for the 1993 team that set the mark for most losses in a season (71), the 1994 and 1995 teams that pulled off major first round upsets over the Red Wings and Flames but didn’t stand a chance after that, the 2004 team that was two games away but lost to the Flames in the conference finals, the 2008 team that was ousted by the Stars in the second round after a four-overtime Game 6, the 2009 team that won the Presidents’ Trophy but was upset by the Ducks in round one, the 2010 and 2011 teams that made it all the way to the conference finals only to be beaten handily by the Blackhawks and Canucks, the 2014 team that blew a 3-0 series lead to the Kings in the first round, and the 2015 team that was so fed up with everything that it just decided to not make the playoffs at all.
Sharks Exceeded Expectations, and Then Some
Looking at a list of the franchise’s seasons on Hockey Reference could drive one to depression. Countless “Lost NHL Semi-Finals” or “Lost NHL Quarter-Finals.” Year after year, reaching the second or third to last stop on the station but never completing the journey. It frustrated players, coaches, and most of all, the fans, who did not enjoy paying for a product that consistently underwhelmed when it was expected to rise.
This was apparent as early as last season, with the Sharks coming off their epic debacle against the Kings and a lot more seats at SAP Center being left empty as a result. And this season, apathy for Team Teal in the Bay Area reached its highest level in years, with the Sharks missing the playoffs the year prior, undergoing a coaching change and overshadowed locally by the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.
Also, there were few things different about this year’s Sharks, personnel-wise. They have a new coach, but Peter DeBoer is about as nonchalant and unemotional as they come. Otherwise, it’s the same old recipe that had grown bland — Thornton and Marleau hanging around, for better or worse, and the core of Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic carrying the team, but not far enough. The new additions were Joel Ward, Paul Martin and Martin Jones, two veterans who were hardly worth jumping out of your seat for, and a rookie goaltender who they spent a first-round pick to trade for.
Now, the Sharks Have Everyone’s Attention
Needless to say, expectations for this season were tempered — very tempered. In a poor Pacific Division, they were good enough to land a playoff spot, but ears barely perked. Vanquishing the Kings in five quick games in the first round was impressive, but still, there were still empty seats at the Shark Tank in the second round. Two overtime losses — one in triple overtime — to the Predators didn’t help get rid of any preconceptions.
It wasn’t until the Sharks demolished Nashville in Game 7 of the conference semifinals that eyebrows began to be raised, and now, with clutch performances never before seen in franchise history in the conference finals against the Blues that has propelled them to the final round, all eyes are on them.
Finally, the Sharks have earned back the trust of the fanbase, the hearts of the Bay Area and the legitimacy of a team that can go deep in the playoffs. And for General Manager Doug Wilson, the gamble of keeping Thornton and Marleau on the roster, the persistence to stick with Couture, Pavelski and Vlasic as the “new” core despite calls for a massive overhaul last season, the shrewd offseason acquisitions of Ward, Martin and Jones and the insight to find and plug in pieces such as Joonas Donskoi, Nick Spaling, Roman Polak, Dainius Zubrus and James Reimer have created a team as deep as any in memory and answered a lot of critics. Each one of those moves probably warranted a head shake from fans and writers alike, and rightfully so. There was not a shred of evidence coming into the season that this would be the year for the long-awaited Stanley Cup run.
It’s funny how things work, that the Sharks wasted all those good teams that were projected to contend for a championship, and then come out of left field in a season that seemed destined for mediocrity.
Well, the Sharks are far from mediocrity. They are the Western Conference champions, and though the ride is not over yet, many demons of the past — the ghosts of yesterday — have already been exorcised and forgotten.