The Sharks have returned to the scene of the game that put them on the hockey map. Being awarded a franchise, playing their first game and opening HP Pavilion were all major moments to Bay Area hockey fans. But it was San Jose’s first playoff series victory against Detroit in the 1994 Western Conference Quarterfinals that caught everyone’s attention.
Team Teal has won eight playoff series in the past 13 campaigns, but their Game Seven clincher at Joe Louis Arena was front page news throughout North America. Until that moment, the Sharks were just a cute story with a hip logo attached. They had made the playoffs as the No. 8 seed and had completed the biggest turnaround (24 points in 1992-93 to 82 in 1993-94 – a 58-point difference) in National Hockey League history.
But following the events of April 30, 1994, the Sharks were no longer a novelty.
Actually, it was amazing to see the Sharks in the postseason. They started the season 0-8-1.
“It was a bunch of journeymen with a few elite players who were just past their prime,” current Sharks Radio Analyst Jamie Baker said. In fact, Baker was the one who scored the game-winning tally in that Game Seven.
Looking back, the Sharks didn’t win the Stanley Cup, but they were as tight as any group that did.
“(Coach) Kevin (Constantine) said it doesn’t always happen when guys come together and play for each other,” Baker said.
Constantine was a story in himself. The first-year coach was just 35, the youngest coach in the NHL that year. On his coaching staff were current Vice President and Assistant General Manager Wayne Thomas and former Sharks Television Color Analyst Drew Remenda. Slowly but surely, the trio found their groove with their team.
“We learned a lot that year,” Baker said. “A lot of details to the game had to be done because we didn’t have the skill level.”
“Everybody’s goal was the Stanley Cup, but in our third year, we made our Stanley Cup making the playoffs,” Thomas said.
As the Sharks rallied from the difficult start and jumped into their first playoff series, they may have been lacking talent, but they were playing very well.
“We had such a positive finish,” Thomas said. “We were in the playoffs for the first time and no one expected it.”
Plus, they knew what they needed to do every game.
“Our group was relatively young and fairly inexperienced, but everybody seemed confident in their roles,” Thomas said.
Their first round opponent, the Red Wings, had won the President’s Trophy for having the NHL’s best regular season record in 1993-94. Detroit was also loaded with talent – from Steve Yzerman and Hart Memorial Trophy winner Sergei Fedorov on the ice to Coach Scotty Bowman behind the bench.
“Why would you pick the Sharks,” Constantine said. “We weren’t good in year two and Detroit was a bunch of studs. It didn’t make sense.”
But the Sharks did have the advantage in one key area: goaltending. At the time, Detroit was riding a talented, but young, Chris Osgood. The Sharks netminder, Arturs Irbe, was “Like Wall,” as he was famously quoted during that time.
“You throw in a hot goalie and it is always the wildcard,” Thomas said. “Even though it looked like David and Goliath, I don’t think we felt that way. I think Arturs gave us a chance, but Kevin did a great job with the preparation.”
Constantine’s preparation was above what many coaches do today, with constant video breakdowns.
Team Teal was a clear underdog, but their first line talent would rival most clubs, but it was more intriguing in that it was more of a first unit. That line, known as the “Ov Line,” featured Russians Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov, along with Swede Johan Garponlov. The trio was normally paired with defensemen Sandis Ozolinsh and Jeff Norton.
As for the rest of the team -- which featured fan favorites like Baker, Jeff Norton and Jeff Odgers -- they took shots when the opportunity was available. However, the Sharks emphasized defense first.
“The whole concept of three checking lines and one totally offensive line was really a nightmare for opposing teams to match up with,” Thomas said. “Larionov held his group together and could play defense when Ozolinsh or Norton went up.”
The series began with Vlastimil Kroupa scoring the game-winning goal in a 5-4 win at the Joe in Game One.
Baker always recited a line from the movie “Dumb and Dumber” after each game: “’So you’re saying there’s a chance?’”
The Sharks had struck first, but Detroit was waiting to take control. The Red Wings dominated Game Two, 4-0, and then won the first playoff contest in San Jose, 3-2.
In Game Four, the nail appeared to be in the coffin when Irbe turned the puck over, costing the Sharks a goal and allowing Detroit to jump to a 3-1 lead. To the hockey world, it appeared the cute Sharks story was over. Then the close-knit Sharks showed how tight they really were.
“When Arturs had the bad goal, the whole bench went down and said all year he was there and they’ll get it for him this time around,” Constantine said.
San Jose rallied for a 4-3 win, the first Sharks playoff victory on home ice, and that’s when Constantine thought the series could go their way. “At that point,” Constantine said, “I knew we had a shot.”
For Remenda, the true moment wouldn’t come until later.
“Driving home after Game Five, we played really well and I said we’re going to win,” Remenda said. “When we got smoked in Game Six, I thought there was no way we could win. The morning of Game Seven, I told my wife I’d be home tonight.”
However, between Games Six and Seven, Remenda temporarily lost his head coach.
“In the playoffs, you want to stay on track,” Remenda said. “So the day after Game Six, I can’t find Kevin and we’re supposed to do video. Then around eight or nine that night, he called and said he went to the Tigers game. He was so mad and upset, he had to get away.”
Heading into Game Seven, the Sharks did have a calming veteran influence in the frenzied Joe Louis Arena.
“For Larionov and Makarov, it was no big deal,” Constantine said. “For the rest of us, we were shaking in our pants. They had the experience of the World Championships and Olympics and helped us win in that environment.”
Constantine pulled a motivational tool out of his hat as well.
“I thought Kevin in the pregame was amazing,” Remenda said. “He took a puck and told everyone to sign a puck for someone who meant something special to them. They will be watching and you can say you were thinking of them before the game. You can tell them you were thinking of them before you shocked the world.”
That moment came in the third period.
With the score tied 2-2, Osgood attempted to clear the puck and Baker had jumped up to intercept it.
“It bounced right to his stick,” Thomas said.
Baker wasted no time firing it on net for the dramatic tally.
“Baker was interviewed after the game and he said, ‘Coach and others said we’re supposed to win the Cup and we were in the back of the room laughing. Then 280 days later, we thought we could win the whole thing,’” Constantine said.
The ice was tilted toward Irbe the rest of the night, but the Sharks would not break.
“We scored and hung on for the last minutes,” Remenda said.
Baker’s heroics went beyond his game-winner as his defense may have been more important.
“Baker did a hell of a job shutting down the Fedorov line,” Remenda said.
That 1993-94 club will never go down as the most talented team, but like a first boyfriend or girlfriend, they will always be fondly remembered.
“It was special,” Constantine said. “It was our first year in San Jose and it was the biggest upset. All of a sudden, the fans started believing anything was possible.”