The San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins don’t see each other much during the regular season but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a common bond. For each, the chance to end years of frustration – certainly more for the Sharks than the Penguins – is here.
It’s the Stanley Cup Final, and for just the second time since 2010 the Western Conference is represented by someone other than the Blackhawks or Los Angeles Kings. Instead, the Sharks are making their first Cup appearance in franchise history. They’re facing a Penguins team that’s back in the final for the first time since 2009, when they beat the Detroit Red Wings for the Cup.
A show of hands: Who had these two in the final when they did their preseason predictions? Not many, if any. Two years ago the Sharks had a 3-0 series lead against the Kings, who came back to beat San Jose in four straight. From the summer of 2014 to the spring of 2015, the Sharks took letters off sweaters, missed the playoffs for the first time in 10 years and dismissed coach Todd McLellan. From an outside perspective, it looked like things would get worse before they got better.
As for Pittsburgh, the Penguins have been in the postseason every year since 2009 but failed to return to this stage each time.
So what changed this year for each? Let’s start with the Sharks. As my Bay Area colleague Kevin Kurz pointed out, the Sharks are here for several reasons: A change in attitude and goaltending and finding the right pieces to complement a longstanding core are among them. Removing/renaming captains could have torn the Sharks apart. And while there was plenty of friction and a few verbal jabs at the time, the Sharks stuck together. General manager Doug Wilson made a few key moves, including acquiring Martin Jones from Boston on June 30, 2015 (the Bruins had traded for Jones just four days prior). The backup-turned-starter was excellent.
The Penguins are here due to a lot of the same reasons: They changed coaches and tweaked their lineup around their core. Acquiring defenseman Trevor Daley from the Blackhawks in December proved pivotal. Daley, who didn’t log many minutes with the Blackhawks, fit in immediately with the Penguins. Blackhawks fans who took to Twitter asking, “Why did they trade for Daley?” in July 2015, asked, “Why did they trade Daley away?” in April.
Pittsburgh went with a new goalie, too, albeit for different reasons. When Marc-Andre Fleury was sidelined with a concussion in March, Matt Murray got his chance. And outside of Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Murray is still in there. It’s one more feel-good story from a final that is teeming with them.
The path to the Stanley Cup Final is rarely an easy one. Some teams have had to go through massive changes to get there (please see the Blackhawks just prior to 2010). The Sharks and Penguins had to make their changes as well, from personality to personnel. Both have gone through their turmoil to get here. Now to see who ultimately triumphs.