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Facing the Mirror in the Western Conference Final

by Dan Marrazza / San Jose Sharks

It’s like looking in the mirror.

The Sharks look like the Blues. The Blues look like the Sharks. The two Western Conference Finalists, the styles they employ, the paths they’ve taken, even the franchise burdens each’s top players carry are nearly identical.

“They’re really, really good,” Joe Thornton said of the Blues. “It’s going to be a good test for us. They’ve knocked off some good teams so far. It’s going to be a great test for us.”

And likewise, the Sharks are going to be a great test for the Blues.

But more than this, this Western Conference Final, for one of these franchises, will be the ultimate exorcism of demons.

As the Sharks exorcised their first batch of demons by defeating the LA Kings, twice Stanley Cup champions since 2012 and their chief geographic antagonist, the Blues began their playoff march by dispatching the Chicago Blackhawks, three-time champions since 2010 and their longtime nemesis.

For both the Sharks and Blues, with a combined 10 100-point seasons in the past decade but nary a single appearance in the Stanley Cup Final, their opening-round victories against their top rivals were signs that this year was different. Both followed these exorcisms by taking their second-round series in similar fashion, surrendering 3-2 series leads and redeeming themselves with blowout wins in Game 7.

San Jose, with its 5-0 drubbing of Nashville, and St. Louis, with its 6-1 win over Dallas, became only the 10th and 11th teams in the past 77 years to win a Game 7 by five or more goals, doing so on consecutive days.

In Game 7, the Sharks were carried by their longtime core players, the Thorntons, Pavelskis and Marleaus, who despite All-Star and Hall of Fame credentials, have received criticism for their inability to win a championship. St. Louis’ leaders in these playoffs, the David Backeses, Alex Pietrangelos and Vladimir Tarsenkos, are all lifetime Blues with All-Star resumes who’ve been similarly criticized, entering this postseason having lost 16 of their last 22 playoff games since 2012.

“It’s a new team, new everything,” Patrick Marleau said on Thursday, when asked, not for the first time and probably not the last, about San Jose’s past inabilities to reach the Stanley Cup Final.

Halfway across the country, players in the Blues’ dressing rooming shared similar sentiments, themselves saddled with the continued questions based on past disappointments.

“In past years, there’s feelings when you’re going into a Game 7, or you’re facing an elimination game and you feel you’re just not going to move on,” said Blues forward Paul Stastny, an adopted St. Louisian who made the Gateway City his hometown in the mid-1990s when his father, Peter, finished his Hall of Fame career by trying to help a similarly powerful Blues team break its championship drought.

“Like I said, in the past, the way we feel here, we feel we have a good team here. Every time a challenge has been thrown our way, we’ve kind of risen up to it.”

Paul’s father’s Blues never rose up to that ultimate challenge two decades ago with a string of disheartening postseason defeats that have helped keep St. Louis out of the Stanley Cup Final since 1970. At the time, the Blues had made it to the Final in all three years of their existence, but sweeps at the hands of the Bruins in 1970 and a pair by the Montreal Canadiens in 1968 and ’69 have kept their names off the Stanley Cup.

To put this drought in perspective, the Blues’ most recent trip to the Stanley Cup Final ended on an overtime goal by Bobby Orr, for which the black-and-white picture is as famous as the man who scored it.

The Sharks have never reached a Cup Final in their 25 seasons, the only vacancy on the resume of what has otherwise been a model franchise since its entry into the league.

Longest Combined Drought With No Stanley Cup Final Appearances Of Conference Final Opponents In NHL History

  • Sharks/Bluesin 2016(71 years)
  • Maple Leafs/Hurricanesin 2002(58 years)
  • Maple Leafs/Sabresin 1999(56 years)
  • Maple Leafs/Kingsin1993(52 years)
  • Kings/Coyotesin 2012(52 years)

Neither of these franchises has won a Stanley Cup. But both have been proficiently run for years, with otherwise sterling track records and business models often not receiving enough credit because of losses in late spring.

The Blues, in fact, lead the NHL in playoffs appearances since 1980 with 31, and even made it to the postseason 26 straight seasons – one longer than the current Detroit Red Wings streak – from 1979-2004.

This continued excellence has been undone with 15 first round eliminations, 13 second round losses and a pair of defeats in the Conference Final.

The Sharks, one of only two NHL teams with 11 playoff appearances since 2003, have made the postseason in 16 of the past 18 seasons.

This exceptional mark has been marred by six first round defeats, six more in the second round and three in the Western Conference Final.

“This isn’t the same team it’s been in the past,” Peter DeBoer said. “We’ve got a bunch of new bodies. It’s a whole different cast of characters…The core guys are still the same.”

The one thing that won’t be the same is the reputation of one of these franchises after this series.

Both have been elite teams for years, both have had disappointments, both have maintained that this is a different season where they’ll finally get over the hump.

And one of them will be right.

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