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Stanley Cup Final

Sharks fans set for first Cup Final home game

Pavelski: 'Everyone's excited for this game here'

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

SAN JOSE -- The sweaters will represent the generations of fans as well as the generations of players. You'll see Tomas Hertl sweaters, celebrating the newest star of the San Jose Sharks. You'll see Brent Burns, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski sweaters, nodding to the younger core, and Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau sweaters, standing by the older veterans.

But you'll see Mike Ricci and Owen Nolan sweaters too, worn by fans who want to show everyone they have been supporting the Sharks before this bandwagon began rolling. Bonus points if you find a Pat Falloon sweater: the original. Grand prize if you find an Oakland Seals or a California Golden Seals sweater: old school.

Northern California hockey fans have been waiting for this moment since the Sharks entered the NHL in 1991 and the Seals played in the League from 1967-76. Finally, the Final, the Stanley Cup Final, will be played here for the first time when the Sharks host the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 3 at SAP Center on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

"You can feel the energy going around the city right now," Pavelski said. "Everyone's excited for this game here."

The Sharks need to harness that energy the way they have throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs, during which they have gone 7-2 at home. Trailing 2-0 in this best-of-7 series, having been outplayed handily despite two one-goal margins, they risk draining what they have generated on this run. Falling behind 3-0 would put the battery on red.

Let's face it: The Sharks have had to work hard to win back their fans. They raised expectations by being one of the best teams in the NHL for more than a decade, winning division titles, making the playoffs, advancing as far as the Western Conference Final, but they kept failing to meet those expectations by failing to make the Stanley Cup Final, let alone win the Cup.

Some finally gave up on them two years ago, when they became the fourth team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 lead and lose a best-of-7 series in the first round against the Los Angeles Kings. They went through so much drama after that, including Pavelski replacing Thornton as captain, and last season, they didn't make the playoffs for the first time in 11 years. Peter DeBoer replaced Todd McLellan as coach.

"[Losing that way to the Kings] was as low as you can get as a professional athlete, individually and team-wise, and then last year obviously tough times missing the playoffs, going through some stuff as a team," Couture said. "But I really think everything we've gone through has made us a lot stronger as a group."

When the Sharks made the playoffs again this season, few believed they had a chance to win the Stanley Cup. No one picked them to do it. Then they defeated the Kings in five games, exacting revenge, and the energy started to rise. Then they defeated the Nashville Predators in seven, making the conference final for the fourth time, and the energy started to rise a little more, the fans cautiously optimistic. Then they defeated the St. Louis Blues in six games, and the energy exploded.

SAP Center rocked. The fans finally felt secure enough to say it, to scream it, to chant it.


And now? Just when the Sharks got everyone believing in them again?

Well, they have been overmatched through two games. They haven't been able to handle the Penguins' speed, turning the puck over too often, failing to sustain possession enough, getting outshot 71-48.

They have to cling to the fact both games went to the end: The winner in Game 1 was scored with 2:33 left in the third period; the winner in Game 2 was scored 2:35 into overtime. They have to focus on the fact they improved from Game 1 to Game 2 and hit a goal post or crossbar four times. An inch here or there, and this would be different.

They have to improve from Game 2 to Game 3, and they have to win. Otherwise, they will face the prospect of being swept on home ice, the challenge of coming back from a 3-0 deficit and all kinds of ironic, annoying questions about that 2014 loss to Kings.

"I think once you get into the Shark Tank, you'll know why [home ice has been an advantage]," Thornton said. "It's extremely loud, extremely intimidating."

It's up to the Sharks to keep it that way.

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