PITTSBURGH — It wasn’t supposed to take the Sharks this long to reach their first Stanley Cup Final. It wasn’t supposed to take this long for Sidney Crosby to guide the Penguins back to one after they won it all in 2009.
Not that either side is complaining.
Certainly not San Jose, whose nearly quarter-century wait to play on the NHL’s biggest stage finally will end tonight when the puck drops for Game 1. Certainly not Crosby, who raised the Cup after beating Detroit seven years ago but has spent much of the interim dealing with concussions that threatened to derail his career. He also has fended off criticism as the thoughtful captain of a team whose explosiveness during the regular season too often failed to translate into regular mid-June parades through the heart of the city.
Maybe the Penguins should have returned to the Cup Final before now. The fact they didn’t makes the bumpy path the franchise and its superstar captain took to get here seem worth it.
“I think I appreciated it prior to going through some of those things,” Crosby said. “I think now having gone through those things I definitely appreciate it more. I think I realize how tough it is to get to this point.”
It’s a sentiment not lost on the Sharks, who became one of the NHL’s most consistent winners shortly after coming into the league in 1991. Yet spring after spring, optimism would morph into disappointment. The nadir came in 2014, when a 3-0 series lead over the Kings in the first round somehow turned into elimination. The Sharks needed a full year to recover from the collapse, but it also sowed the seeds for a breakthrough more than two decades in the making.
General manager Doug Wilson tweaked the roster around fixtures Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, who remained hopeful San Jose’s window for success hadn’t shut even as the postseason meltdowns piled up.
“I always believed that next year was going to be the year, I really did,” Thornton said. “I always thought we were a couple pieces away. Even last year not making the playoffs, I honestly thought we were a couple pieces away, and here we are.”
The Penguins, like the Sharks, are a study in near instant alchemy. General manager Jim Rutherford rebuilt the Penguins on the fly after taking over in June 2014. With the team sleepwalking last December, he fired coach Mike Johnston and replaced him with the decidedly harder-edged Mike Sullivan. The results were nearly instantaneous.
Freed to play to its strengths instead of guarding against its weaknesses, Pittsburgh rocketed through the second half of the season. Then the Penguins showed the resilience they sometimes lacked during Crosby’s tenure, overcoming a 3-2 deficit against Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference finals.
True catharsis for one side is four wins away.