Narratives die hard, and the San Jose Sharks are not yet safe from the suspected-rather-than-respected list for the same reason that their next opponents are.
No Cups. No parades. No fun. No pride of ownership. One long finger in the eye, applied repeatedly, and with sadistic consistency.
But after their 5-0 Game 7 evisceration of the Nashville Predators to reach their fourth-ever Western Conference Final, the Sharks are finally playing with the casino’s money, reputationally speaking.
As long as they don’t do something stupid like blow a 3-0 lead in games to the St. Louis Blues in the upcoming fortnight, they will have more than met their 2016 burden . . . if that’s your idea of joy.
It shouldn’t be, of course, because when you’re this close to seeing the Stanley Cup for real, the tunnel vision of looking ahead to what could be is far more appealing than the look behind at what has never been. Or worse for the Sharks, what has always been.
Truth is, San Jose is playing St. Louis for the right to play for the Cup because it can break programming. The team with the terrible home record won all four games in this series at home, the sixth team ever to do so. The team with the pathological history of trying to coast at the worst times possible played through the impulse in Game 7 and routed the Predators from anthem to handshake line. The team that could make any lead unsafe scored early and then scored earlier still in each of the subsequent two periods to crush any nascent thoughts of a Preds’ rally.
And the fan base that has come to live with the false positive as a part of their world for more than two decades roared with as much glee at the way the Sharks devoted themselves in the third period to save Martin Jones’ shutout as they did each of the five goals their side got -– from the nucleus that has seemingly been here forever, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, and one of the underappreciated new ones, the ever-devoted Joel Ward.
The customers got all they wanted Thursday night, with none of the usual stabbing pains that come with needless stress, needed stress or full-on tracheotomy-quality choking. They got effort and discipline and opportunism and depth and smart hockey throughout the evening. Indeed, the worst thing they saw all night was Justin Braun’s interference penalty at 14:34 of the third that led to . . . well, nothing at all, really.
In short, they ended a nearly unbroken line of hockey recidivism by coming from off the early pace to become the one thing they’d never ever been.
The stealth contender.
Now they are as close to a Cup final as they have ever been. They face a St. Louis team that had a better regular season, has the best player on either team in Vladimir Tarasenko, has a coach with a ring in Ken Hitchcock, and has a playoff narrative as dispiriting in its own way as San Jose’s.
But that is Missouri’s problem. Well, one of them, anyway.
San Jose’s problem is upping its game to meet the challenges that the Blues present. The Sharks will not be favored here, and will not have the sudden benefits of home ice advantage. San Jose will have to approach that series as it approached Game 7 Thursday night –- all things in time, and the devil in the details.
Plus, and this is a small thing but a noticeable one -– they did not celebrate their victory as a tremendous accomplishment. They did not throw their gloves and sticks skyward or mob Jones as his shutout was sealed. They won, they congratulated each other on a good day's work, they bid the Predators their individual farewells and commiserations, and then they left to the next job.
The audience, though, has a different challenge -– deciding what will truly satisfy it now. Beating the old narratives somehow seems like a hollow victory now that the Stanley Cup is suddenly in sight. And even though the Blues are the better team coming in, and even though the Sharks were supposed to be one-and-done rather than anything but done, the idea of looking around for the glass ceiling suddenly seems like defeatism.
In other words, there might still be disappointment awaiting these San Jose Sharks, but for one of the rare times in their postseason history, it will be the right kind of disappointment –- the disappointment that the good times come to an end, rather than that their team donkeyed up a chance at greatness.
And if there isn’t any disappointment at all, if the Sharks beat St. Louis and play for the Stanley Bleedin’ Cup with a team that nobody thought capable of even dreaming it –- well, if that isn’t your idea of an open-bar drunk, then we can’t help you, and frankly don’t want to.