Well, this one hurt. It had been five years since the last team I was actively rooting for made it to the Stanley Cup Final. That team I’d known briefly, hopping on the bandwagon of one of the greatest teams in recent history, certainly the greatest to fall short of a Cup, based solely on the city/region they represent. The Vancouver Canucks have since fallen on the backburner in my fandom — they’ve become a placeholder for Seattle, but they’ve also been overtaken by another team I’ve come to love, the one that represents my current home. The San Jose Sharks had been chokers for years; blessed with an all-star roster and a respectable playoff streak, they’d never made it to the big stage with a chance to win the Stanley Cup. They were murdered by the Los Angeles Kings in 2014, a defeat that seemingly slammed their championship window shut. The core was rotten, the prospects grim, and management was without a clear path forward. They missed the playoffs last year, and many thought they were done. 2016 was redemption. 2016 was the year the Sharks finally slayed the King(s). 2016 was a resurgence of the core, still intact, still capable even in its relatively elderly state. 2016 was the year.
What now? Certainly, the goal-tending can only continue to be solid. The empty-looking prospect cupboard delivered crucial talent, despite appearances so there’s always a chance there. The depth is largely under contract, still. So, why do I feel the window’s closing? Was this the only chance for Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau to finally raise Lord Stanley’s Cup? I hope not. My fandom in San Jose is only beginning, it feels like.
They were two wins from a Stanley Cup. I know that feeling. The San Francisco Bay Area has never won a Stanley Cup, despite hosting two hockey teams since 1967 and having numerous championship teams both past and present, from the dynasty 49ers and Giants to the greatest basketball team of all time, the Golden State Warriors. To say the fanbase is suffering would be somewhat disingenuous. To say the Sharks and their fanbase deserve a Cup would be an understatement.
About the Penguins. I suppose this one was a long time coming. I should have had the foresight to notice. They were the better team in nearly every way. They had the jump, the top-caliber talent, and the depth to overcome what I thought was a perfectly constructed team in San Jose. The series was a massacre. It wasn’t even that fun to watch, given the nerves and the stakes. Had the Sharks won, it would have been great, obviously, but I have mixed feelings. The Penguins’ game was masterful, as was the goaltending of Martin Jones (holy shit was he good). Sidney Crosby was a complete beast, well deserving of the Conn Smythe trophy, and re-emerging as the greatest player in the world that we all knew he was.
Somehow the Sharks won twice. I don’t know how. They didn’t hold a lead until Game Five, and that one (a quick two-goal lead) disappeared faster than it had come. They made the game-winning goal stick at the end of the first period, so there’s that, however the rest of the games were so mainly one-sided it felt like my hope was being curb-stomped every other night. The Sharks stars were made ineffective. Their defensive depth was exposed in the worst possible ways (thanks, Polak). Their top players did alright, but the Penguins were simply too deep to counter. Their leading scorer, Phil Kessel (and holy crap, Phil won a Cup), was a third-liner on that team. A third liner! That’s just unfair. What that tells me that it’s incredibly difficult to build a winner in this NHL, lest you suffer a cap explosion or the weight of expensive contracts that looked good at the time. I can only hope that the rebuild the Penguins started in the middle of the last decade can be a model for the one my team in Buffalo is currently rising out of.
It looks like the trend of a red or black team winning the Cup continues. Sucks that my two favorite teams both wear blue… It’s also another Cup for the Penguins, who had been the only team left standing to win a Cup in the cap era. That makes four teams in the last eight years to win. Where is the parity? This is how it was from 1995 to 2003, when four teams won nine. There was a ton of new blood throughout the series this year, yet we’re left with the same result of a repeat(ish) champ. If the ’95-’03 trend continues, one of Pittsburgh or Los Angeles will win their third Cup next year. Please no.
In other fun news, this looks to be an insane offseason. I say that every year, but this year (and probably in just a few days) the expansion process will end and a new team will find a home in Las Vegas, Nevada. It also seems increasingly likely that the Carolina Hurricanes will cease to be, perhaps finding a shiny new home up north. But who knows? Nothing is set in stone as of today, so it could just be a quiet, boring, uneventful summer.
Also, the draft this year is in Buffalo. Make it happen, Tim.