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Penguins, Sharks appreciate trip to Final destination

Different journeys have teams at cusp of Stanley Cup

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

Read this quote from Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. Guess when he said it.

"You have high expectations. You expect to be in the Final every year. But if anything I think you appreciate how tough it is to get there, probably what it takes, even more so."

He didn't say that Thursday, when the Penguins earned the right to face the San Jose Sharks in the Stanley Cup Final starting Monday at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh (8 p.m.; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

He said that in September.

September 2010.

Crosby had experienced only one relative failure at that point. After trending upward for four years -- from missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs to first round of the playoffs to Stanley Cup Final and then to a championship -- the Penguins had lost in the second round of the 2010 playoffs. They had taken a step backward for the first time.

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If he appreciated how tough it was then, or at least thought he did, how does he feel now that he has spent not one but seven seasons trying to return to the Cup Final? Now that he has been through injuries and upheaval and heartache?

How do the Sharks feel? The franchise hasn't been trying to return to the Cup Final after winning a championship. It has been trying to make the Cup Final for the first time in its 25-year history despite icing some of the best teams in the NHL for more than a decade.

Patrick Marleau has spent his entire 18-season NHL career with the Sharks, playing 1,576 regular-season and playoff games trying to make it here. Joe Thornton has spent 18 seasons trying to make it here too, most of the last 11 with the Sharks.

Only two Sharks have been part of teams that have made the Cup Final: Forward Dainius Zubrus and goaltender Martin Jones.

"You don't make it this far all the time obviously," Marleau said Wednesday after the Sharks clinched their berth in the Cup Final. "Just trying to seize the moment."

The NHL is a 30-team league with a salary cap and parity. Not all teams are the same. But they're darn close, especially when the field is pared to 16 playoff teams. It's hard enough to make the playoffs, let alone the Cup Final, even though the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings have made it look easy by combining to win the Cup five of the past six seasons.

But here's the other part of the equation: While parity makes it hard, parity also makes it possible. The same forces that conspired against the Penguins and Sharks when they fell short of expectations helped them exceed expectations this season. If you have a strong core, you can do it if you have enough depth, chemistry, health and luck. If everything comes together at the right time, anything can happen. Others once upset the Penguins and Sharks; this time they upset others.

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This Pittsburgh core is the same one that lost in the first or second round five times in the past six years: Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang, Marc-Andre Fleury. But general manager Jim Rutherford brought in a new coach in December in Mike Sullivan and surrounded the core with a mix that has worked. The Penguins got hot down the stretch and carried it into the playoffs.

Who leads the Penguins in scoring? New arrival Phil Kessel. Who scored the goals in the Penguins' 2-1 defeat of the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Thursday? Rookie Bryan Rust. Who has been in goal for most of this playoff run? Rookie Matt Murray.

"I know there's a lot of stories that surround this group, but the greatest story of all is the group itself," Sullivan said Thursday. "And for me, when you're part of something that's bigger than yourself, it's a special feeling, and I know these guys have it right now."

The San Jose core is the same one that blew a 3-0 series lead in the first round against the Kings two years ago and didn't make the playoffs last season: Marleau, Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Brent Burns. But general manager Doug Wilson brought in a new coach in Peter DeBoer and surrounded the core with a mix that has worked. The Sharks improved as the season progressed and got hot in the playoffs.

Couture, Pavelski and Burns rank first, second and third, respectively, in playoff scoring, and Thornton is sixth. The core is coming through. But new additions have been difference-makers: Jones, defenseman Paul Martin and forwards Joel Ward and Joonas Donskoi.

"This time of year that's what it takes," Couture said Wednesday. "You look at the past champions. They get scoring and good play throughout their lineup. We need it. We've gotten it. So that's why we're this far right now."

Crosby, Malkin, Kunitz, Letang and Fleury have made it back. Marleau, Thornton, Pavelski, Couture and Burns have made it finally.

You know they appreciate the opportunity they have. And you know they'll do everything they can to make the most of it.

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