This was never supposed to happen. Ever.
Two forlorn franchises, the St. Louis Blues and the San Jose Sharks, both of which came into these NHL playoffs carrying more baggage than a 747 on a transcontinental flight, have finally stared down their playoff demons after years of futility.
We all know the history.
After losing in 2012 to the Blues, the Sharks have been haunted by the Kings, losing to Los Angeles in their last two playoff appearances, the latter of which saw them squander a 3-0 series lead in 2014.
The Blues, after a 25-year playoff streak ended in 2003, entered an era of relative non-competitiveness until 2012. They were greeted back into the postseason fold by the Kings and the Blackhawks, who took them out three years in a row before the Wild had their way with the Blues last year in six games.
Now, one of these two teams, with a grand total of zero Stanley Cups between them and seemingly hundreds of heartbreaks, will be competing for the Stanley Cup at the conclusion of the Western Conference Finals.
And it’s going to be absolutely fantastic.
While much will be, and should be made of the shared playoff misery of these two franchises, their recent playoff ineptitude is far from the only tie that binds them together.
Start with the fact that both teams have consistently retooled on the fly over the last several years. They’ve refused to completely condemn the house they’ve spent years building, but have consistently stripped it down to its foundation and made improvements in what sometimes seemed to be a futile and misguided attempt to salvage something that wasn’t worth salvaging at all.
For example, Joe Thornton’s career as a Shark post-captaincy.
Or Patrick Marleau being a big time player in the big spots in the playoffs.
Or Brian Elliott taking the Blues on a deep postseason run while working in tandem with another goalie.
Or believing that a core of players that has failed time and again against the same team in a multitude of painful ways – the Blues against the Blackhawks and the Kings and the Sharks against the Kings – could overcome those past playoff failures to meet their Western Conference counterparts in the conference finals.
Yet, here we are. The strategy of bringing in a revolving cast of ancillary characters and young blood to reinvigorate the team and complement the core has finally paid off and both teams are on the verge of a Stanley Cup berth.
For the Blues, it’s their first Western Conference Finals appearance since 2001, when they lost to the eventual champion Colorado Avalanche. If they win, they’ll advance to their first Stanley Cup Finals since 1970.
The Sharks have never made a Stanley Cup Finals appearance and last made it to the Western Conference Finals in 2011, when they lost to the Canucks in five games.
But as these two teams have proven with their impressive playoff runs and blowout Game 7 victories, history should hardly matter here.
In the past, a series between these two teams would likely result in jeers and commentary along the lines of, ‘well, they both can’t possibly screw it up at least.’
But this year’s iterations of the Sharks and Blues are a far cry from those teams as they’ve proved in the first two rounds.
They’re playoff battle-tested and one step away from breaking the ‘can’t get it done in the playoffs’ catcalls for good.
So besides the off-ice narratives that make this series as juicy as a nice, thick, T-bone steak, the on-ice matchup is just as salacious, if not more so.
The Sharks are made from a similar mold as the Dallas Stars, the team the Blues bested to reach this point. They’re fast, they play fast and they can light up the scoreboard in a hurry.
While the Blues’ heavy-hitting and by-the-book game definitely got the best of the Stars by the end of their series and could potentially have the same effect on the Sharks, the major difference between the Sharks and the Stars of course is their playoff acumen.
The Sharks have been here before and have a core that’s been together through thick and (mostly) thin.
But the Blues aren’t just heavy – they’re skilled, too. Guys like Vladimir Tarasenko, Alexander Steen and exciting newcomer Robby Fabbri can light the lamp at will and put enormous pressure on a defense.
Not to mention that the Blues have an experienced and deep group of blueliners that are stalwarts in their own end but can push the play and provide pressure at the opposite end of the ice.
Still, it’s the Sharks that have the trump card on defense, with the versatile and seemingly unstoppable Brent Burns, who finished 11th in the league this season with 75 points and second in shots on goal to only Alexander Ovechkin with 353.
The two men tasked with being the great equalizers in this series both have their question marks but have also done more than respectable jobs in net through their teams’ runs.
Brian Elliott, a 31-year-old journeyman for the most part of his career, had a putrid Game 6 for the Blues against the Stars in which he was pulled, but rallied nicely in Game 7 and has by and large done a great job this postseason.
Martin Jones, meanwhile, has made up for what he lacks in experience with poise and confidence and has seemingly stabilized a position the Sharks have struggled at around this time of year for quite a while.
But as is the case with young/journeyman goalies in deep in the playoffs, those accolades are subject to immediate and series-altering change.
The X’s and O’s are tantalizing, the storylines are memorizing, and the history of these two teams’ recent playoff pitfalls is spellbinding. Mix it all together and you’ve got a whale of a series on tap for the Western Conference Finals.
One that will see a dream realized for one team and a playoff nightmare continued for another.
Bryan Altman is, for some reason, an unabashed fan of the Rangers, Jets and Mets. If he absolutely had to pick a basketball team it would be the Knicks, but he’d gladly trade them for just one championship for any of his other three teams.