The San Jose Sharks have reached uncharted territory: the Stanley Cup Final.
Their first appearance in the championship round keeps the dream alive for the perfect conclusion to their 25th anniversary season. One of the most successful teams of the past decade, previously defined by its Stanley Cup Playoff shortcomings, has finally exceeded expectations.
Since 2005-06, the Sharks have more regular-season wins (501) than any team in the NHL. They have qualified for the postseason in 11 of 12 seasons dating to 2003-04. They made the Western Conference Final three times prior to this year (2004, 2010, 2011) but could never get over the hump -- until now.
The previous two seasons were the most excruciating in their history. In 2014, the Sharks became the fourth team in NHL history to lose a playoff series after winning the first three games, and it came at the hands of the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings. The Sharks underachieved and missed the playoffs in 2014-15, leading to the firing of coach Todd McLellan.
But that's history. The 2015-16 Sharks have evolved into the complete package, with consistent contributions throughout the lineup, whether from veteran leaders Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski or relative newcomers Brent Burns and Logan Couture. Each Sharks player has bought into coach Peter DeBoer's system of strong defensive values and possession prowess. He, in turn, has incorporated offensive freedom given the wealth of talent at his disposal.
In the regular season, the Sharks had three players among the top 11 in the NHL in scoring. Thornton, 36, turned back the clock with 82 points in 82 games, tied for fourth-most in the League. Pavelski was fifth in goals and tied for sixth in points. Burns, whose 75 points were 11th, scored 27 goals, the most by a defenseman since 2008-09. Burns also became one of three expansion-era defensemen with 350 or more shots on goal in a single season. The other two are Bobby Orr (five times) and Ray Bourque (twice).
San Jose finished third in the Pacific Division but had the depth and firepower all along to make a lengthy playoff run. Having Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic healthy in the postseason has taken the Sharks to new heights. They defeated the Kings in five games to avenge their disaster in the 2014 playoffs, won all four home games (including Game 7) against the Nashville Predators, and outscored the St. Louis Blues 18-8 at even strength, leading to a series-clinching win in Game 6 at SAP Center on Wednesday.
As he did with the New Jersey Devils in 2012, DeBoer got the Sharks to the Cup Final in his first season as coach, one year after they missed the postseason. He was left off the list of Jack Adams Award finalists in his first season with the Sharks but ultimately helped them navigate the difficult Western Conference and maximize a core group that never before reached its collective potential.
So, with the Stanley Cup Final set to begin Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports), here are the moments, moves and players that have gotten the Sharks this far:
BEST MOMENT: Game 6 against St. Louis
The Sharks made history on home ice in Game 6 against the Blues, jumping out to a 4-0 lead and holding on for a 5-2 win. Goalie Martin Jones made big saves when he needed to, and San Jose's first, second and third line each scored. After the handshake line, the Sharks celebrated in front of their home crowd and were presented the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl as Western Conference champions. They have won hundreds of regular-season games over the years and even won the Presidents' Trophy in 2008-09, but this was easily the most meaningful hardware the Sharks have ever won. Now, only the Stanley Cup remains.
TURNING POINT: Getting Couture back
The Sharks were 17-16-2 entering their game Dec. 30 against the Philadelphia Flyers, when Couture returned from injury. From that game to the end of the regular season, the Sharks went 29-14-4. San Jose won 32 of the 52 games Couture played in the regular season. He had one goal and two assists in the Sharks' Game 6 win against the Blues, giving him an NHL-best 24 postseason points (eight goals, 16 assists). He has been a focal point throughout the playoffs on the Sharks' first power-play unit, scoring the most man-advantage points (11) in a single postseason since 2011.
BEST MOVE THEY MADE: Trading for Jones
Days after the Boston Bruins acquired Jones from the Kings at the 2015 NHL Draft, the Sharks got him for a 2016 first-round pick and forward prospect Sean Kuraly. Jones, who was Jonathan Quick's backup for two seasons, had 37 regular-season wins (third in NHL) and six shutouts (tied for second) in his first season as a full-time starter. Jones has carried over his breakout season to the playoffs, helping to defeat his former team in the first round and leading the League in postseason wins (12) and shutouts (three). Jones got help when San Jose acquired goalie James Reimer from the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 27. The extra rest for Jones -- not to mention Reimer's six wins and three shutouts in eight games -- was important for the Sharks, who had the most stable goalie situation of the four conference finalists.
BEST MOVE THEY DIDN'T MAKE: Trading core pieces
Remember when there was talk of a rebuild in the fallout from the Sharks' 2014 playoff collapse? Thornton and Marleau, who each has a no-movement clause in his contract, were subjects of trade rumors, but even after the Sharks missed the playoffs in 2014-15, general manager Doug Wilson mended fences and kept the core of Pavelski, Burns, Couture, Thornton and Marleau intact, instead opting to make a coaching change, trade goalie Antti Niemi's rights to the Dallas Stars, acquire Jones, and sign a proven playoff performer in forward Joel Ward. The Sharks are the first team with four players (Couture, Pavelski, Burns, Thornton) averaging a point per game or better in at least 18 games in a single postseason since the 1991 Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins (Mario Lemieux, Mark Recchi, Kevin Stevens, Larry Murphy), according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Patience with this group has paid huge dividends.
SIGNATURE WIN (REGULAR SEASON): Record road trip
The Sharks won their first four games of the regular season before losing eight of their next 11. But they responded by defeating the Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets to sweep a six-game road trip (Nov. 13-22) for the first time in their history. A sign from this trip that these were not the same old Sharks was their 2-1 overtime win Nov. 14 in Buffalo, where they had not won in nearly 10 years (previous win: Dec. 2, 2005, which was Thornton's first game with San Jose). The Sharks had the best road record in the NHL and tied for the second-most road wins (28) in League history. They have won five of nine playoff games away from SAP Center including two straight in St. Louis.
SIGNATURE WIN (POSTSEASON): Game 5 against Los Angeles
The Sharks have exorcised their playoff demons numerous times this postseason, but the moment you knew they meant business was in their series-clinching 6-3 road win against the Kings. San Jose extended its lead to 3-0 in the second period of Game 5 before the Kings countered with three goals to tie it before the end of the period. After blowing a 3-0 series lead to the Kings in 2014, the Sharks of old may have crumbled in the hostile road environment. But these Sharks responded with goals in the third period by Joonas Donskoi, Pavelski and Melker Karlsson to silence their doubters and eliminate the Kings.
Pavelski, whose 116 regular-season goals are second in the NHL behind Alex Ovechkin's 154 since 2013-14, has exemplified the Sharks' brand of hockey. He is a menace in front of the net, a strong forechecker and one of the highest-percentage shooters in the League. After shooting 17 percent in the regular season, he is at 21.3 in the postseason, scoring a League-best 13 playoff goals. He has nine playoff power-play points, helping San Jose to the third-best power-play conversion percentage (27.0) in a single playoff of at least 12 games since 1993-94. Pavelski had at least a point in each of the six games against the Blues. He and Thornton form an elite point pair that was second in the League in the regular season and is first in the playoffs.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Donskoi
The Sharks signed Donskoi as a free agent last May after he was playoff MVP in the Finnish Liiga. His signing didn't come with much fanfare, but his late-series heroics sure have. He was a strong possession player in the regular season and has blossomed in the postseason with five goals and four assists in 18 games playing mostly alongside Couture at even strength. He had two goals in Game 5 against the Kings, two assists in Game 5 against the Predators, and another goal in Game 6 against the Blues.
UNSUNG HERO: Vlasic
Vlasic had a career-high 39 points in 67 games in the regular season but missed the final three weeks because of a lower-body injury. He returned for Game 1 of the first round and has shut down the leading goal-scorer for each of the three teams the Sharks have faced. Vlasic has 11 points, 36 shots on goal and a plus-13 rating this postseason, and helped hold Tyler Toffoli (31 regular-season goals), Filip Forsberg (33) and Vladimir Tarasenko (40) to a combined three playoff goals in 18 games. Especially after missing the final two games of the Sharks' 2014 playoff collapse because of injury, you can argue Vlasic's presence at each end of the ice has been most vital to San Jose's success.
by Pete Jensen @NHLJensen / NHL.com Staff Writer