“Stanley Cup is so close but still far, it’s amazing,” he said with a big grin.
And there you have it.
Here are five storylines that will determine in large part whether the Sharks or the Pittsburgh Penguins will hold that trophy high in the coming days. Game 1 is Monday, 8 pm. ET.
Sharks seeking redemption
The seven-year lapse between appearances in the Stanley Cup finals for the Penguins’ core of stars is well-documented. But in some ways that pales to the road to redemption for a Sharks team that has never been to the finals and that two years ago epically blew a 3-0 series lead in the first round against the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Los Angeles Kings. No two players have worn the heavy cloak of criticism over the years more often than Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. The two former captains have played a combined 3,093 regular-season and postseason games and never once stood on this stage. When Marleau noticed the Cup sitting a few feet away on Sunday, he laughed. Yes. Close but far. “Four wins away and there’s a lot of heavy lifting, a lot of hard work that’s going to have to go in in order to raise that Cup,” he said. “I mean, ever since you’re a kid when you know what it’s all about, you want to win it right then when you’re eight, nine years old. So, it’s a long time coming and just kind of trying to relish it and stay in the moment and just to have fun with it.”
Which captain will prevail?
It’s a refrain heard so often it has become as though an undeniable truth: Sidney Crosby is the best hockey player on the planet. For much of his career, it’s been a statement easy to defend. And this spring Crosby might be playing the best all-around hockey of his career. He scored three game-winners in the Eastern Conference finals. He has 15 points in 18 games and has been dynamic at both ends of the ice, playing often against opposing team’s top players. “As far as his game, he’s one of the best to ever play, as far as I’m concerned,” offered Sharks center Thornton. But if you asked 100 hockey people who the best player in the world is, how many would say Crosby’s counterpart, Sharks captain Joe Pavelski? The tenacious Pavelski leads the playoffs with 13 goals, four of which have been game-winners, also tops in the NHL. “You guys are just obviously seeing it now but ever since he’s come to the Sharks, he’s always done things the right way,” Marleau said of his captain. “And now we’re all reaping the benefits of that, how good he’s playing right now, and going to need that again for one more series.”
Will the rookies crumble?
You can say you want depth because depth is crucial to winning a Stanley Cup. But especially when it comes to young players, depth throughout the playoffs is easier to wish for than to have. Sometimes young guys hit a wall, sometimes young guys find it difficult to mesh with star players. And yet neither of these teams gets anywhere close to this point without the contributions of their young players. Rookie Bryan Rust, 24, scored both goals in the Penguins’ Game 7 win over the Lightning in the conference finals. Brian Dumoulin, 24, has, in the absence of injured defenseman Trevor Daley (broken ankle), become a reliable figure on the Pittsburgh blue line. On the Sharks’ side, Hertl, 22, has been a key third component of the dominant Pavelski-Thornton line. Chris Tierney, 21, Joonas Donskoi, 24, and Melker Karlsson, 25, all have fit seamlessly with a veteran-laden Sharks team. “I don’t think anybody plays tentative or feels tentative saying anything, which is important,” Tierney said. “The young guys I don’t think are scared to make mistakes out there or are scared to say something or ask questions to the older guys.”
Which inexperienced goalie will prevail?
Speaking of inexperience … at the start of this playoffs, the two No. 1 goaltenders in the Stanley Cup finals had combined for exactly 57 postseason minutes played. Here are some of the goaltenders whom Martin Jones of the Sharks and Matt Murray of the Penguins have tossed to the curb along the way: the Kings’ Jonathan Quick, the New York Rangers‘ Henrik Lundqvist, the Washington Capitals‘ Braden Holtby, the Tampa Bay Lightning‘s Andrei Vasilevskiy and the St. Louis Blues‘ Brian Elliott. Now these two upstart goalies whose numbers suggest neither side will have much of an edge will square off with a championship on the line. Neither Jones, 26, nor Murray, who turned 22 last week, know much about each other but both have backstopped teams to the edge of what is in many ways an improbable championship. “I don’t think I’ve brought the team anywhere,” Murray insisted. “I think the team has been so good that this was kind of our destiny to get to the finals; just we’ve played so well.”
From scrapheap to immortality
A year ago, Sharks head coach Pete DeBoer was unemployed, having been fired the previous December by the New Jersey Devils. He coached his son’s team and admittedly drove his wife crazy before coaching Canada at the World Championships and then sitting down with GM Doug Wilson about the vacancy in San Jose. Meanwhile, Mike Sullivan was scouting for the Chicago Blackhawks and ended up on the ice at the United Center, celebrating after the Chicago Blackhawks‘ Game 6 Stanley Cup win over the Lightning. By the end of the summer, he was the head coach of the Penguins’ American Hockey League affiliate and by Christmas was behind a dramatic turnaround of the big club as the Pens would become the highest-scoring club in the NHL from the time Sullivan took over. Looking for a little symmetry? Sullivan began his NHL career as a player with the Sharks. The team’s captain? Doug Wilson. “I’m glad to see him get the opportunity,” Wilson said. “He deserved it. He’s a good man.”