It takes a special team to end a drought that spanned each of the 25 years of the San Jose Sharks' existence as an NHL franchise. That's what the organization has this year. This edition of the Sharks is unlike any that came before them. Reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time guarantees their uniqueness, but there's something more to them than just that.
In so many years, the Sharks have had the look of a team that was ripe for a postseason disappointment. The makeup was just a little off, or the goaltender wasn't performing well enough or they ran into the wrong matchup. But this team never really had the look of one that was filled with doubt. Not even when the Nashville Predators forced a Game 7 in the second round did it look like this team was going to shrink under the spotlight and added pressure of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Their road to the Stanley Cup Final hasn't been easy, but it was clear in each of their three series that the Sharks were the better team. With the right combination of skill, physicality and tactics, this group makes for a very tough matchup for any opponent. The Los Angeles Kings, the Predators and then the St. Louis Blues all tried and failed to figure out how to slow the Sharks down.
Now they'll test their mettle against a strong Eastern Conference opponent in the Stanley Cup Final. The story of how they got here could tell a lot about whether or not they'll be the team raising the shiny trophy at the end of the season.
Here are five reasons the Sharks will be playing for Lord Stanley's chalice:
1. Star players have been driving the Sharks' bus right into the Cup Final
Teams have proven in recent years that you can win the title without your best players playing their best hockey so long as there are others to pick up the slack. However, that has never been an issue for the Sharks to even have to worry about. While other teams could see stars go long stretches without producing, San Jose's top players have been propelling them to their success with consistent scoring.
Four of the top six scorers in the Stanley Cup Playoffs are on the Sharks. Logan Couture is leading the way with 24 points, while captain Joe Pavelski is second overall in points (22) and the league's leading goal scorer with 13 this postseason. Top defenseman Brent Burns, a Norris Trophy finalist during the regular season, is third overall in the playoffs and leading all defensemen with 20 points. Joe Thornton is tied with Pittsburgh's Phil Kessel for fifth overall with 18 points.
The Sharks have depth on their roster, but the star players are the ones doing the heavy lifting offensively. It's those players that have the Sharks averaging an absurd (by today's standards) 3.50 goals per game in the playoffs.
2. The Sharks have been tough to beat in consecutive games
Sometimes in the playoffs, it's not about how well you punch, but how well you counter punch. The Sharks have lost a total of six of their 18 playoff games this year. Only once did they lose two of those games consecutively and the second loss was a three-overtime affair against the Nashville Predators.
Something that's particularly interesting is that the Sharks don't just respond after a loss, they have typically bounced back emphatically. In their five wins following a loss, the Sharks have outscored their opponents 18-6.
There are a few reasons they have had this level of success. Some of it has to be the adjustments that head coach Peter DeBoer is making. Some of it is going to be the mental preparation and recalibration of the players. But perhaps a big part of it is that this team has not yet panicked once in these playoffs. They haven't made drastic changes or jumbled lines or deviated much from their plan. They make the little adjustments and it leads to incredibly positive results.
3. Their top shutdown defensive pairing is shutting pretty much everyone down
As my colleague Adam Gretz wrote about in greater detail ahead of Game 6, Marc-Edouard Vlasic has been the ultimate shutdown defenseman for the Sharks. He and frequent D partner Justin Braun have had to go head-to-head with multiple high-end goal scorers and have dramatically decreased those players' effectiveness.
What makes Vlasic in particular so special is that his primary responsibility is to defend, but he contributes significantly in the possession game as a solid puck-mover and smart decision maker. He's been on the ice for only seven 5-on-5 goals against for the Sharks. Meanwhile, Braun has only been on the ice for nine.
Having a pairing that DeBoer can throw over the boards in key matchups and almost guarantee their success is something you almost never find in the NHL. Vlasic and Braun will get fewer headlines than their opponents, but they're no less of a driving force in putting the team in this position.
4. The San Jose power play is terrifying
Imagine you and three of your best defensive-minded teammates are on the ice to try and kill a penalty. Now look across the ice and notice that the other power play unit includes Brent Burns, Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski. What do you do? First, check your pants. Second, pray.
Among the teams that made it out of the first round, the Sharks have the most successful power play. They've converted on 27 percent of their advantages with 17 goals in 63 power-play opportunities. They also have two shorthanded goals for good measure.
Special teams can be a separating factor when you have as much success as the Sharks have had on the advantage so far this postseason. Continued success in this area could put them over the top in what should be a more evenly-matched Stanley Cup Final.
5. They've stayed remarkably healthy in the postseason
Beyond the injury to depth forward Matt Nieto near the end of the second-round series against the Predators, the Sharks have had good health in the postseason. That's not to say players aren't playing while banged up, because that's often the case, but San Jose hasn't had to make many changes to their lineup.
They've only lost the seven man games to injury, all of them belonging to Nieto. The only other lineup changes came when the team swapped out Tommy Wingels for Dainius Zubrus for two games. Now Zubrus is filling the gap while Nieto sits out.
In the playoffs, teams need to catch breaks here and there on their way to the Stanley Cup. Staying healthy is probably first and foremost in the good-fortune department because that's something that the players can barely control.
As constructed, the Sharks lineup is going to match up well with anyone. Not having to jumble the lineup and get knocked out of their rhythm has been huge. It's really, really difficult to stay this healthy for this long. Now we'll see if it continues in the Stanley Cup Final.