Two teams that appeared to be in disarray not so long ago have emerged from the harsh wilderness of the Stanley Cup playoffs to reach the final, and who doesn't like a story about redemption, regrouping and bushy playoff beards?
The San Jose Sharks, who have accomplished more than ever when the least was expected of them, won the West as the No. 6 seed. Their opponent in the Stanley Cup final, starting Monday at Consol Energy Center, will be the Pittsburgh Penguins, who overcame a slow start, a slew of injuries and a coaching change to rank No. 2 in the East.
The Sharks have never won the Cup or made it to the final; the Penguins last won in 2009 but never established the domination that seemed their destiny after a 21-year-old Sidney Crosby led them to victory. By the time one team achieves that redemption, players' already shaggy beards might reach their padded shins.
These playoffs have been unusual. None of the seven Canada-based teams qualified, and by the end of the first round the remaining Original Six teams were gone. The Penguins were part of the NHL's first big expansion from six teams to 12 in 1967; the Sharks were admitted as the 22nd franchise, for the 1991-92 season, kicking off a concerted push into non-traditional markets. "Original 22" doesn't have the history or ring of Original Six, but the Penguins and Sharks have made compelling contributions to the postseason drama this spring.
The Sharks, who finished third in the Pacific Division, and the Penguins, second to top-ranked Washington in the Metropolitan Division, shed their past playoff baggage to defeat opponents who were hailed as bigger, deeper and blessed with better goaltending. The Sharks took out the Kings, the speedy Nashville Predators, and the rugged St. Louis Blues, while the Penguins got past the New York Rangers, the Capitals and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Both teams stumbled during the season but regrouped at the right time. They've gotten stronger as the playoffs have progressed, taking them a long way since those early-season low points.
The Sharks had a longer road out of the depths. In 2014 they extended their long list of postseason failures by squandering a 3-0 series lead over the Kings in the first round. A few months later, General Manager Doug Wilson took the captaincy away from Joe Thornton, a slap in the face in a sport that considers the captain the one player who can stand out in a team ethic. In explaining his decision to season-ticket holders in March 2015, Wilson said that when under stress Thornton "lashes out at people and it kind of impacts them." Thornton didn't pull any punches with his response. "I think Doug just needs to shut his mouth," he told the San Jose Mercury News. "I think that's the bottom line."
They missed the playoffs last season, which led to the departure of coach Todd McLellan and the hiring of Peter DeBoer. Wilson, with his job probably on the line, acquired goaltender Martin Jones from Boston, which had gotten him from the Kings in the Milan Lucic trade. Wilson signed free-agent defenseman Paul Martin and forward Joel Ward, moves that paid huge dividends.
But all was far from well. In November reports surfaced that forward Patrick Marleau, a Shark since he was drafted No. 2 overall in 1997, was willing to accept a trade to three destinations. It never came to pass, though, and in early December players began to grasp DeBoer's system. Their season trended upward. "Pete has really stressed it's going to take everybody to get where we need to go," Thornton said. "I think we've all bought into that."
The Penguins had to adjust to a new coach in midstream. Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston in December, with Crosby and an extraordinarily talented group struggling to score. Sullivan's message was simple: He believed in his players and their potential.
"In the first meeting we had with them, I said to the group that I think we have great players. Our challenge is to become a great team, and if we can do that, that's how you win in this league," he said last week. "I think, to their credit, they have become a team in the true sense of the word."
Only one team will take the final, glorious step that ends with players embracing the Cup while smiling through beards thick enough to house birds' nests. But for both teams, and for hockey fans, this has been quite a ride. No Original Six, but plenty of original drama and entertainment.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter: @helenenothelen