The year was 1996. It was 6:30 in the morning, and I was biking to school. It was cold. My nose was running. I flew down a hill and got that breeze in my face and then felt my chubby 7th grader legs burn as I went up the other side of the dip. I finally got to school early, as I did every day so I could spend some time with the newspaper in the library reading up on hockey.
The top 3 in scoring seemed to read like this every day:
1) Mario Lemieux, PIT
2) Jaromir Jagr, PIT
3) Ron Francis, PIT
Meanwhile the Sharks were hopelessly bad, winning 20 games that year. Mario Lemieux averaged 4 points a game against the Sharks in those early years. And I wondered when the Sharks would be any good and when they'd have players whose names I'd see at the top of the list in scoring.
A lot has happened since then (not the least of which is replacing the daily newspaper with a smartphone). However, the Penguins have always been a team that piqued my interest more than other East Coast teams for this reason (and also because you could pulverize other teams in video game hockey playing as them back in the 90s).
With that said, congratulations to the Pittsburgh Penguins on winning their 4th Stanley Cup in franchise history - two with Super Mario leading the way and two with Crosby. The Penguins were a flat out better team throughout their lineup (with the exception of goal) and deserved to win. The Sharks simply didn't have an answer for their team speed, forecheck, and transition game. The team was fast, stupid deep, and displayed a commitment to discipline and team defense that I don't know that I've seen before. There's no shame in losing to this team. They reminded me of the dominant Datsyuk-led Red Wings teams who were thought to be "soft", but responded to shenanigans simply by beating other teams on the scoreboard.
Thank you San Jose Sharks for an incredible, odds-defying, thrilling season, the most memorable of my 21 years of following this team and the NHL. Two summer months of games in which every play is huge, where every icing call has you holding your breath and every moment is intensely scrutinized is . . . well, intense. Immersing myself in the happenings around town has been more than fun; it was seeing a little slice of San Jose transformed.
Although they fell short of the ultimate prize, there's a lot that can be taken out of this season in which they came within two wins of the Stanley Cup: Martin Jones emerging as a legitimate top-tier goalie, Logan Couture rebounding from a potentially fatal injury early in the season to lead the playoffs in scoring with 30(!) points, Joe Pavelski leading the playoffs in goals and coming up huge in 3 rounds to propel the Sharks to the finals, Brent Burns playing Norris-worthy defense, Joe Thornton playing some of the best hockey in his hall-of-fame career at age 36, the emergence of Joonas Donskoi . . . the list goes on.
They exorcized their demons by plowing through LA in the first round, made Nashville's all-world defense look amateurish in the second round, and were head and shoulders above a St. Louis team that had defeated the champion Chicago Blackhawks and had a combination of top-end scoring and a punishing physical game. Here are some videos from the night the Sharks eliminated the St. Louis Blues to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history. It was electric.
The only black eye on the Finals was Sydney Crosby winning the Conn Smythe. Now I'm no "Crosby Hater" (a demographic in itself), and I recognize that he is one of the best, if not the best in the game today. However in my opinion he hasn't been "all-world, generational talent good" in the finals by any stretch of the imagination. When was the last time a forward who scored 0 goals in the finals won the Conn Smythe? Of course the award isn't just for the player who had the best finals, nor is it necessarily all about goals (nor his pedestrian 4 assists in 6 games), but Phil Kessel (drove the HBK line that was the team's catalyst) or Nick Bonino (just behind Crosby in scoring, excellent 2-way play) would have been better choices. Matt Murray would have been a decent choice too, because although he wasn't particularly good in the finals he was good enough to get 15 wins in the playoffs as a rookie who is barely old enough to drink. Heck, if this thing went one more game I think you'd have to include Logan Couture and Martin Jones in the conversation. The Conn Smythe is voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association, so I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise considering the the plethora of coverage heaped on their darling. Perhaps it seemed fitting to give him the only major trophy he hadn't won yet to complete his collection. In any case, I think this demeans the value of this historic trophy and is a snub to Crosby's teammates.
Still, arguing about the Conn Smythe seems petty when there are so many great memories to celebrate - Joe Pavelski beating the bigger and faster Anze Kopitar on a wrap around goal in LA, playoff-monster Joel Ward channeling his inner Patrick Kane to deftly tuck away a puck past Pekka Rinne, Thornton's geometrically perfect pass to Hertl for a goal against St. Louis, Marc-Edouard Vlasic battling against Crosby all series long, "OYE HOYE DONSKOI", Martin Jones delivering one of the better goaltending performances in finals history to stave off elimination in game 5, the unreal crowd in the SAP Center and on the streets, and a Sharks team on the ice that showed a level of resolve, resilience, and determination that took them to within two wins of the sport's greatest prize.
In any case, it's time to turn to other adventures this summer before the World Cup of Hockey and a new NHL season this fall. Hopefully I won't need to endure snotty 6:30am bike rides to look up stats, and I trust that I'll see the likes of Pavelski, Couture, Thornton, Burns, and Jones near the top of some lists in the NHL.
(and back to regular blogging about music this summer . . . )