SAN JOSE -- The clock counted down, and the fans counted down with it.
The final horn sounded, and it was over: the game, the wait. The San Jose Sharks had defeated the St. Louis Blues 5-2 and eliminated them in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final at SAP Center on Wednesday, and they had made the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in their 25-year history.
Finally, after 24 seasons, 18 playoffs, four conference finals, they had earned the right to play for the championship. They will face the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 on Monday.
As the Sharks streamed off the bench, forward Joe Thornton and defenseman Brent Burns grabbed each other in a big, bearded embrace. The players huddled in front of their net and then gathered at center ice and saluted the fans. When NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly presented the Clarence Campbell Bowl to captain Joe Pavelski, the entire team gathered together again for a photo.
Without touching the trophy, of course.
Thornton spoke to NBCSN analyst Brian Boucher, a former teammate. Asked which team he preferred to face in the Cup Final, he said: "I'll play 'em both. If they want to dress 40 guys, I'll play 'em both."
Can you imagine how this felt for Thornton? For Patrick Marleau
? For Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic
and Logan Couture
Marleau has played his entire career with the Sharks. He has played in 18 of their 24 seasons and 16 of their 18 playoff appearances, including all four conference finals. He has played 1,411 regular-season and 165 playoff games for San Jose, most in team history in both categories. This will be his first chance to play for the Cup.
To put that in perspective, consider that Dave Taylor holds the record for most regular-season games played for one team before playing in his first Cup Final for that team, according to Elias. He played 1,078 games for the Los Angeles Kings, 333 fewer than Marleau has played for the Sharks.
Thornton has been with the Sharks since the Boston Bruins traded him to San Jose on Nov. 30, 2005. He has played 835 regular-season and 149 playoff games for San Jose, and this will be his first chance to play for the Cup.
Marleau and Thornton have previously served as captain. Marleau and Thornton's 2,778 combined regular-season games are the most by two teammates each playing in the Cup Final for the first time, according to Elias.
"I can't imagine, because all I've seen of them is the year I've spent with them and how hard these guys work every day, how committed they are, how badly they want to win," said coach Peter DeBoer, whom the Sharks hired last summer. "I don't think that's changed over the last 10 years. I just think, for whatever reason, it hasn't come together. So I can't imagine the [stuff] written about them and said about them that they've had to deal with."
Pavelski, Vlasic and Couture have been Sharks for their entire careers, Pavelski and Vlasic since 2006-07, Couture since 2009-10. Like Thornton, they have been to three conference finals, and this is their first chance too.
Keep going down the roster. Only two Sharks have experienced the Cup Final elsewhere, forward Dainius Zubrus and goaltender Martin Jones, who was a backup for the Kings in 2014 and never got to play.
"I think we need to appreciate how far we've come and the work that we've put in and the way that we've played," defenseman Paul Martin said.
The Sharks have won 13 playoff series since 2003-04; only the Chicago Blackhawks, with 16, have won more. (The Penguins can win their 14th on Thursday.)
But while 15 other teams, half of the NHL, have made the Cup Final in that period, the Sharks haven't made it until now, two years after they lost a 3-0 series lead in the first round against the Kings, one year after they didn't make the playoffs.
Why now? Why have the Sharks made the Final this year when few expected them to? Why is this team different?
The Sharks are deeper. They have better goaltending. Everyone is clicking at the right time.
The offensive stars are producing; the three leading scorers in this year's playoffs are Sharks. The defensive stalwarts are shutting down the opposition. The depth players are contributing, notably Martin and forwards Joel Ward
and Joonas Donskoi
, whom general manager Doug Wilson added in the offseason. Jones, another offseason addition, has been calm and solid in goal.
"We truly believe we've got a deep team," Thornton said. "You saw tonight all 12 forwards play big parts. Six D played big parts. [Jones] played great. This is truly a team effort from top to bottom."
It's not over yet. The only Shark who has won a Cup is Jones, and again, he was a backup who didn't get to play. Amid the postgame euphoria in the dressing room, DeBoer gave his players a reminder.
In 2012, his New Jersey Devils eliminated the New York Rangers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final. They went on to lose the first three games of the Cup Final and lost the series to the Kings in six.
"This is not the end goal," Thornton said. "I'll tell you that right now."
Bring on the Penguins or the Lightning, or both if you want. The Sharks are still hungry.
"At the end of the day," Couture said, "if we don't go on and win that next series, this really doesn't mean anything."
by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist