By Tim Wharnsby
(Reuters) - The 2016 Stanley Cup Finals could be billed as the what-took-you-so-long championship series. The Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks, which begin their best-of-seven series in Pittsburgh on Monday, were expected to meet in the final -- not necessarily this year, but six years ago to be precise.
Back then, the Penguins were a year removed from the franchise’s first championship in 17 years and the Sharks enjoyed the best regular season in the West. But instead, Pittsburgh began a string of playoff failures in 2010, while San Jose continued to suffer shortcomings in the postseason, being swept in the Western Conference Finals by the Chicago Blackhawks a portend of things to come. But the Sharks have finally solved their postseason woes, advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in their 24-year history.
The Penguins, with all their talent -- including captain Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang -- feel like they’ve been missing from the National Hockey League’s biggest stage for almost as long. “Every year, you look at the opportunities you have, and we were in pretty good spots for a number of those years going into the playoffs,” Crosby said. “I think we've always believed in one another. Just trying to get back is not easy.” Tell that to the Sharks. They have had plenty of talent and made trips to three conference finals between 2004 and 2011, but taking that next step eluded them. “Yeah, it's a pretty cool feeling,” said the 36-year-old Joe Thornton, who took 19 seasons to advance to his first Finals.
“Obviously it's our first time. The fans here have waited so long.” Coaching changes were difference-makers for the Penguins and Sharks. The Sharks began the season with a new bench boss in Peter DeBoer and just as he did with the New Jersey Devils four years ago, he has guided San Jose to the final series in his first year with a new team. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was promoted from Pittsburgh’s minor-league affiliate in December. After a sluggish start with Sullivan at the helm, the Penguins caught fire when the calendar flipped to 2016 and then dispatched the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lighting in the first three rounds. “You see the talent that's in the room, and it's hard not to believe in them, and that's how I felt when I first took the team over,” said Sullivan, who played forward for the Sharks in their inaugural season in 1991-92. “To their credit, they have become a team in the true sense of the word. It starts with our leadership. It starts with our captain, with Sid, but it doesn't stop there. It goes to (Malkin) and Kris Letang and Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr and some of the veteran guys that have been around, and I think it funnels down the bench.” The Penguins also have traveled this far with a rookie 22-year-old goalie in Matt Murray, summoned from the minors late in the regular season because of a head injury to starter Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury is healthy again, but Murray has played well enough to keep playing. The Sharks, meanwhile, added goalie Martin Jones via a trade last summer and a clutch goal scorer in Joel Ward through free agency.
Jones and Ward as well as the continued development of captain Joe Pavelski and defensemen Brent Burns have been a big boost to Thornton and his long-time teammate Patrick Marleau in their series wins over the Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues. “It's going to be fast hockey,” Crosby said after being asked what to expect in the final. “From what I've watched, it’s two teams that want to play the exact same way, that want to get their (defensemen) involved. “It's going to be quite the series.”
(Editing by Andrew Both)