The San Jose Sharks are in the Stanley Cup Final.
To a non-hockey fan, that’s not much of a lead. But if you’ve been following the NHL at all over the last ten years, that sentence is shocking. More than any other franchise, the Sharks of 2005-2015 are synonymous with unmet expectations.
There were three straight 2nd round exits under Ron Wilson. Todd McLellan replaced Wilson and led the 2008-09 team to the best record in the NHL; they lost in the 1st round. The Sharks reached the next two conference finals, and managed to win one game.
2012 saw the Los Angeles Kings win their first Stanley Cup, leaving the Sharks as the only California team without one. The Kings would further torment the Sharks by beating them in the 2nd round of the 2013 playoffs. If the heartbreak of losing a 7-game series to a rival was unimaginable, then we need to invent a new word for what happened next. The 2014 Sharks and Kings met in the 1st round. San Jose won the first three games–an all but insurmountable lead in the series. Los Angeles surmounted it.
San Jose had tried all kinds of voodoo to reverse their fortunes. They brought in new players–Rob Blake, Dan Boyle, Dany Heatley, Martin Havlat, Antti Niemi. They took the captaincy away from Patrick Marleau and gave it to Blake, then to Joe Thornton after Blake retired. After the 2014 disaster, the Sharks stripped Thornton of the title and went without a captain. Nothing worked; the 2015 Sharks missed the playoffs, and McLellan was fired.
Pundits labeled the Sharks with the worst insult imaginable: a regular season team. Thornton and Marleau were chokers. Those two had to go if the team wanted to win. Rumors swirled that the team was trying to do just that. It was curious timing considering that the had Sharks re-signed both players and given them the power to veto any trade. Thornton and Marleau apparently refused to leave.
Eventually the Sharks chose Joe Pavelski as captain. Pavelski had long been the obvious candidate–a former 7th round pick who reached elite status through sheer will (and a lot of talent that became apparent as soon as he reached the NHL). The Sharks re-tooled the roster. At the draft, a series of trades ended with goalie Martin Jones in San Jose. Jones had been the understudy to Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles. In free agency, the Sharks added veterans Joel Ward and Paul Martin. Peter DeBoer was hired as coach; at his previous stop in New Jersey, he guided the Devils to the Stanley Cup final where they lost to, of all teams, the Kings.
Bolstered by the changes, or refreshed after a drama-free summer, or through simple regression to the mean, the Sharks got themselves back into the playoffs. And into a 1st round matchup with the Kings.
Bay Area sports fans have been treated to a sports renaissance. The San Francisco Giants have won three World Series since 2010. The 49ers played in three straight NFC Championship games and came within a field goal of winning a Super Bowl. The Oakland Athletics made three straight playoff appearances. The Raiders… are still there.
And then there are the Golden State Warriors, who make their home in Oakland, at least until their new arena opens in San Francisco. Golden State is in many ways the model franchise for the current NBA. The Warriors followed up their 2015 NBA Championship with the best regular season that league has ever seen. That run looks to be coming to an end against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
I can’t help but notice when these happy coincidences add up. From 2001 to 2015, Boston saw its teams win four Super Bowls, three World Series, one NBA title, and a Stanley Cup. When one team stumbled (the 2007 Patriots lost in the Super Bowl, one win shy of a perfect season), another stepped up (the 2008 Celtics).
Having the Sharks conquer their nemesis the Kings feels too neat, like a movie script. Yet it happened. The Sharks stumbled in the 2nd round against Nashville, then regained their balance and advanced. Now they have beaten St. Louis, another team of destiny if there ever was one. There is nothing supernatural about any of this, but to the fans watching the Warriors falter, can’t it seem like the Sharks’ success is even a tiny bit connected?
The San Jose Sharks are waiting for their next opponent; the team they will play for the Stanley Cup. I still can’t believe I typed that.