PITTSBURGH -- It wasn't supposed to take the San Jose Sharks this long to reach their first Stanley Cup Final. It wasn't supposed to take this long for Sidney Crosby to guide the Pittsburgh Penguins back to a destination many figured they'd become a fixture at after winning it all in 2009.
Not that either side is complaining.
Certainly not the Sharks, whose nearly quarter-century wait to play on the NHL's biggest stage will finally end Monday night when the puck drops for Game 1. Certainly not Crosby, who raised the Cup after beating Detroit seven years ago but has spent a significant portion of the interim dealing with concussions that threatened to derail his career and fending off criticism as the thoughtful captain of a team whose explosiveness during the regular season too often failed to translate into regular mid-June parade through the heart of the city.
Maybe the Penguins should have returned to the Cup Final before now. The fact they didn't makes the bumpy path the franchise and its superstar captain took to get here seem worth it.
"I think I appreciated it prior to going through some of those things," Crosby said. "I think now having gone through those things I definitely appreciate it more. I think I realize how tough it is to get to this point."
It's a sentiment not lost on the Sharks, who became one of the NHL's most consistent winners shortly after coming into the league in 1991. Yet spring after spring, optimism would morph into disappointment. The nadir came in 2014, when a 3-0 lead over Los Angeles in the first round somehow turned into a 4-3 loss. The collapse sent the Sharks into a spiral that took a full year to recover from, one that in some ways sowed the seeds for a breakthrough more than two decades in the making.
General manager Doug Wilson tweaked the roster around fixtures Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, who remained hopeful San Jose's window for success hadn't shut completely even as the postseason meltdowns piled up.
"I always believed that next year was going to be the year, I really did," Thornton said. "I always thought we were a couple pieces away. Even last year not making the playoffs, I honestly thought we were a couple pieces away, and here we are."
The Penguins, like the Sharks, are a study in near instant alchemy. General manager Jim Rutherford rebuilt the team on the fly after taking over in June, 2014 and with the team sleepwalking last December, fired respected-but-hardly-charismatic Mike Johnston and replaced him with the decidedly harder-edged Mike Sullivan. The results were nearly instantaneous.
Freed to play to its strengths instead of guarding against its weaknesses, Pittsburgh rocketed through the second half of the season and showed the resilience it has sometimes lacked during Crosby's tenure by rallying from a 3-2 deficit against Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference finals, dominating Games 6 and 7 to finally earn a shot at bookending the Cup that was supposed to give birth to a dynasty but instead led to years of frustration.
True catharsis for one side is four wins away. Some things to look for over the next two weeks of what promises to be an entertaining final.
When the season began, Matt Murray was in the minor leagues. Now the 22-year-old who was supposed to be Pittsburgh's goalie of the future is now very much the goalie of the present. Pressed into action when veteran Marc-Andre Fleury suffered a concussion on March 31, Murray held onto the job even after Fleury returned by playing with the steady hand of a guy in his 10th postseason, not his first. San Jose counterpart Martin Jones served as Jonathan Quick's backup when the Kings won it all in 2014 and has thrived while playing behind a defense that sometimes doesn't give him much to do. Jones has faced over 30 shots just four times during the playoffs.
'HBK' is H-O-T
Pittsburgh's best line during the playoffs isn't the one centered by Crosby or Malkin but Nick Bonino, who has teamed with Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin to produce 17 goals and 28 assists in 18 games. Put together when Malkin missed six weeks with an elbow injury, the trio has given the Penguins the balance they desperately needed after years of being too reliant on their stars for production.
San Jose's brilliant run to the Finals has been spearheaded by a power play that is converting on 27 percent (17 of 63) of its chances during the playoffs. The Sharks are 9-2 when they score with the man advantage and just 3-4 when it does not.
Old men and the C(up)
Both teams have relied heavily on players who began their NHL careers in another millennium. Pittsburgh center Matt Cullen, who turns 40 in November, has four goals during the playoffs. Thornton and Marleau, both 36, were taken with the top two picks in the 1997 draft that was held in Pittsburgh while 37-year-old Dainius Zubrus draws stares from younger teammates when he tells them he used to play against Hall of Famer (and current Penguins owner) Mario Lemieux.
"When I say 'Twenty years ago I was playing against Lemieux, they say 'I was 2-years-old,'" Zubrus said.
Over the past few days, the Union embarked on their toughest road trip of the season, if not ever.
And although they didn’t get at least one win like they craved, they did come home with a very respectable pair of points following two hard-fought draws to remain in first place in the Eastern Conference.
What did we learn about the team as they played in the heat of Orlando and the altitude of Colorado this past week? And what can we expect with one more game coming up before the league’s two-week Copa America Centenario break? Here’s a look in this week’s Inside Doop:
Three thoughts about this past week
1. Each of the two draws left the team with different taste in their mouths as the Union felt robbed by the refs in Wednesday’s 2-2 draw with Orlando City SC — particularly on a non-penalty call and also Orlando’s two semi-controversial goals — but grateful to escape with a point in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with the Colorado Rapids in a game they were mostly outplayed. Still, despite those very different feelings, the Union fought back from a second-half deficit to surprise the home crowd with a tying goal in both. It can’t be said enough how this is different than past Union teams, most of which never would have come from behind in hostile environments like these.
2. While there were plenty of crazy things to happen in the second half of Wednesday’s game, it all paled into comparison to what transpired in stoppage time Saturday. That’s when, with the Union trailing by a goal, defensive midfielder Brian Carroll scored for the first time in nearly three years — with his left foot, no less — to tie the game and cause Colorado to drop points at home for the only time this season. Perhaps equally impressive, Carroll ended up playing all 90 minutes in both Orlando and Colorado — and still found the energy to make a late run into the box to score the equalizer. That’s an exhausting stretch for anyone, let alone a 34-year-old veteran who was initially signed for this season just to provide depth.
3. What a week for Ken Tribbett. Taken on the road trip mostly for precautionary measures, the rookie center back ended up scoring his first MLS goal and bagging his first MLS assist in Orlando after coming on for Josh Yaro, who dislocated his shoulder. Tribbett then got to start against Colorado, helping to limit the Rapids to just two shots on target while playing in front of 30 family members in the state which he grew up. Head coach Jim Curtin may not have made as many lineup changes as some expected in the two games this week but Tribbett and Ray Gaddis — who spelled Fabinho at left back and got a secondary assist on the tying goal in Colorado — are giving the team some excellent defensive depth.
Three questions for the week ahead
1. The biggest question heading into Wednesday’s home game against Columbus (7 p.m., TCN) is who will man the goal, as starter Andre Blake has left to join Jamaica for Copa America Centenario. Curtin said recently it’s basically a toss-up between backups John McCarthy and Matt Jones. McCarthy started 11 league games for Philly last season and provided the club with some memorable moments, but Jones had a good pedigree in Portugal before coming to Philly this year. Either way, the Union will be glad to only lose Blake for one game, barring a deeper run for Jamaica than most expect (although the way Blake has been playing this year, some Copa upsets for the Reggae Boyz may be possible).
2. With the exception of captain Maurice Edu’s long-term stress fracture, the Union have been pretty healthy of late. That changed when Yaro dislocated his shoulder, but Philly is fortunate enough to have a player like Tribbett — who started the first five games before an injury of his own — to fill in for him. Considering the Union are off for two weeks after Wednesday’s game, it seems likely they’ll keep Tribbett in the lineup so Yaro has more time to heal. A bigger question may be whether Yaro returns to the starting role following the Copa break if Tribbett has another strong game.
3. Will the Union’s streak of unlikely goal scorers continue? Before Tribbett scored his first career goal and Carroll followed with his first since 2013, it was center back Richie Marquez opening his MLS account to lift Philly to a 1-0 win over D.C. United on May 20. And earlier in the month, right back Keegan Rosenberry scored a big goal to lift Philly to a come-from-behind point over the L.A. Galaxy. If you would have told most people that three defenders and Carroll would score this season, they might not believe you. The fact it all happened this month makes it even crazier — and, of course, a great thing to ease some of the scoring burden off striker C.J. Sapong and the rest of the attackers.
Quote of the week
“I’m happy for the resilience that my group showed. It’s difficult to go on the road to Orlando with the turf and the heat and then coming here to altitude and get points in both places shows a lot of character and grit.”
-- Union head coach Jim Curtin
Stat of the week
Through 13 games, 14 different Union players already have at least one goal or one assist this season. To compare, that’s only two fewer than all of last season, the same number as the entire 2013 campaign and three more than in 2010.
Player of the week
Teaming up with Warren Creavalle in the defensive midfield, Carroll did a good job against Kaka on Wednesday. And although he could have done better to prevent Colorado’s goal, his equalizer more than made up for it.
Phillies (26-24) vs. Nationals (30-21)
7:05 p.m. on CSN
After a 1-5 road trip that concluded with a sweep at the hands of the MLB-best Chicago Cubs, the Phillies return home to face another strong opponent in the NL East-leading Washington Nationals. Can a return to Citizens Bank Park be an answer to the Phillies' woes?
Here's that and everything else you need to know for the Phils' Memorial Day showdown with the Nationals:
1. Power outage
The Phillies started last week 25-19 but ended it just two games over .500 after getting outslugged by the Tigers and Cubs. In the Cubs' series, the Phils mustered just five runs.
Through 50 games, the Phillies are averaging just 3.2 runs, narrowly ahead of the MLB-worst Atlanta Braves. Manager Pete Mackanin is taking some steps to rectify that, namely reducing Ryan Howard's playing time so the team can get a good look at rookie first baseman Tommy Joseph (see story).
Joseph alone won't be able to get the Phillies on the right track. The Phillies need to start getting more contributions throughout the lineup. Leadoff man Odubel Herrera is batting .320 and Tyler Goedell is hitting .313 in May, but those two have been the only other bright spots in the Phils' lineup recently.
While the Phillies sport a 4-2 record against the Nationals this season, they have just 15 runs in those six games. Luckily for the Phils, the Nationals haven't exactly been playing top notch baseball of late.
2. What have the Nats been up to?
When the Nationals began a three-game set in Washington against the Phillies in late April, they were 14-5 and sat three games up in the NL East. However, since the Phillies swept them, the Nationals have gone just 15-14.
The Nats just finished an up -and-down week by splitting a four-game set with the St. Louis Cardinals and losing two of three to the Mets. Washington tends to rely on Bryce Harper, who is currently mired in a slump.
Harper had just four hits in his 24 at-bats against the Mets and Cardinals. He failed to draw a walk in either series and struck out four times. The 2015 NL MVP is 1 for 3 with two walks this season against Monday's starter, Jeremy Hellickson.
Former Phillies Jayson Werth and Ben Revere have helped pick up the slack, however. Werth's pinch-hit grand slam Sunday sealed the Nationals' win over the Cards. Revere has five multi-hit games in his last nine starts.
3. All eyes on Hellickson
Hellickson is the man tasked with taming Nationals' bats that produced 10 runs Sunday. Hellickson's first matchup against the Nats was his worst start of the season, while his second start was his best.
On April 15 at Citzens Bank Park, Hellickson gave up six runs — five earned — in just three innings, his shortest start of the year. He gave up a home run to the first batter he saw (Michael Taylor) and allowed a three-run double to Werth.
So expectations weren't high on April 27 when the veteran righty faced the Nationals in Washington. However, Hellickson came through for the Phillies on that day. He allowed just two hits in seven scoreless innings and struck out eight.
Which Hellickson will we see this time? It's tough to tell, but he has produced quality starts in his last three outings, a good sign of things to come.
4. Ready for Roark?
The Nationals have some true aces in their rotation with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. But Tanner Roark has emerged as another go-to guy in the rotation in the first two months of 2016.
The 29-year-old pitcher shuffled between the rotation and bullpen last season, finishing with a 4.38 ERA in 40 appearances. However, the righty has returned to form with 10 strong starts, including seven shutout innings against the Phillies on April 28.
After giving up seven runs to the Marlins on May 14, Roark rebounded with quality starts against the Marlins and Mets, giving up just three runs in his last 13⅔ innings in those contests.
Historically, the Phillies have gotten the best of Roark. He has a 2-5 record with a 5.55 ERA in 35⅔ innings, including an 8.27 ERA at Citizens Bank Park.
5. This and that
• Howard is 4 for 12 with one home run and six RBIs in his career against Roark. Herrera has three hits and a walk in seven plate appearances.
• Harper is 3 for 6 with five walks against Hellickson. Werth is 3 for 11 with two doubles and a homer against Hellickson.
• The Phillies are 2-5 in the first game of a home series this season. The Nationals are 5-3 in the first game of road series.