PITTSBURGH -- San Jose Sharks forward Patrick Marleau
has been close enough to the Stanley Cup to touch it. But his fingers have never even grazed the sterling bowl, nor the collar beneath it, nor the distinctive rings beneath that.
"The nicest thing about the Stanley Cup? That would be winning it, being able to touch it," Marleau said with a soft laugh Sunday, daring for just a moment to entertain the thought.
"I've never touched it, no. I've had opportunities. I've been near it. But I think it's something… a lot of people don't touch it until they've actually earned it, or you're close to somebody who's earned it."
Marleau might or might not have noticed that the Stanley Cup was bathed in lights just a few short steps from where he was speaking, displayed on the NHL Network set.
"Just the majesty of it," he said, describing what he loves best about the trophy. "The design. The rings. Everything it takes to put the names on it. It's something special, that's for sure. Going through four rounds of best-of-7 grueling hockey, I'd put that up there, too."
After 1,230 regular-season NHL games and 85 more in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, here we are at that fourth round: seven games or fewer between the Sharks and the Pittsburgh Penguins to decide the NHL's 2015-16 champion. Game 1 of the Final is at Consol Energy Center on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).
But first came Sunday, with practices for the teams on what's known as Media Day, a feeding frenzy for reporters who flocked to formal midday press conferences featuring management and coaches, and to eight "pods" on the arena's Concourse Level for colossal scrums to interview players.
If the practices began on schedule, many of the interview opportunities were fashionably late; you'd expect that with the myriad demands on everyone on the eve of the most meaningful hockey of the season.
This is not the NHL of yesterday, when a handful of scribblers would wander casually from player to player in the dressing room, if they didn't sit with them to shoot the breeze in hotel lobbies on rail cars between cities.
Every word uttered Sunday was captured by dozens of cameras and probably hundreds of journalists. No stone was left unturned, even if this quarry of quotes had been dynamited into dust through the three rounds that it took to get here.
Marleau has played 1,576 regular-season and playoff games during 18 NHL seasons, all for the Sharks, before arriving on this stage for the first time.
Across the Consol Energy Center's well-dressed hall sat fellow greybeard Joe Thornton, who has skated in 1,517 games during 18 NHL seasons for the Boston Bruins and the Sharks. This is also Thornton's first trip to the Final.
"It's beautiful," Thornton said with a smile of the Stanley Cup. "It's the hardest trophy to get in pro sports, and I think it's the nicest of all the trophies in pro sports."
The 36-year-old playmaker speaks fondly of seeing the names of the 1970 and 1972 champion Bruins engraved on one of the silver bands because "I know a lot of those old boys. I like seeing the [Edmonton] Oilers on there."
Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan and general manager Jim Rutherford, and their San Jose counterparts, Peter DeBoer and Doug Wilson, held formal question-and-answer sessions, followed by the free-form banter with players.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby was fabulous, speaking profoundly of his first return to the Cup Final since Pittsburgh went all the way in 2009.
His coach and GM had spoken earlier of his superb leadership, maturing qualities that are of huge importance to his team.
"[Crosby] works extremely hard," Sullivan said. "I don't know that I've been around a player in all the years I've been associated with this League with a work ethic like Sid's.
"He's the first guy on the ice every single day. His fitness level off the ice, how he trains away from the rink [is done] with the same commitment [as] when he's on the ice. The way he lives his life. Everything about him is about how he creates a competitive advantage for himself.
"And watching it every day, I've grown to have more respect and more admiration for the type of effort that he puts in that's necessary to be the best player in the world."
Added Rutherford: "Last year we had situations like all teams deal with at certain times. [Crosby] showed tremendous leadership by quietly going and dealing with that situation away from the rink. I can remember a couple situations last year where he just did it on his own, either at his house or some place privately. I was so impressed with that. He's a terrific leader."
Marleau, a terrific leader in his own right, was giving thought to the people who have been with him through nearly two decades, his Sharks three times having gone as far as the Western Conference Final before this year, but never past it.
"When you're on this ride, [you think of] the people who have been with you through the ups and downs -- families, teammates," Marleau said. "When you get in this position, you want everyone along for the ride.
"This is the furthest we've ever been [in the playoffs], so it's huge for us in that respect. But we have one more step to go. It's huge for our fan base. To finally get to the Final and give them something to watch this late in the season is something special."
Sharks goalie Martin Jones was casting his eye around the crowded hall, noting with complete accuracy that, "It's a bit of a circus here.
"I think it's pretty easy not to take it for granted, no matter what," he added of being within four wins, or four crushing losses, from season's end. "This is the Stanley Cup. This is what we play for."
Across the way, Thornton was enjoying every second of it.
"It's great, so here we go. Let's do this," he said with a grin to the media horde massed before him. "Let's get you guys out of the way and [play] tomorrow."
by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / NHL.com Columnist