SAN JOSE -- Wednesday's Western Conference Final clincher brought with it a little deja vu for Sharks coach Pete DeBoer, who will now be guiding his second club through a Stanley Cup Final. In 2012, he took a veteran New Jersey Devils team all the way the last round before bowing out to the champion Kings in six games.
He’s now a career 6-1 in playoff series, advancing to the Final for the second time in as many appearances in the tournament. He compared the Sharks’ situation to his own experience in his first year in New Jersey, when he took over after the Devils after they had finished out of the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons.
“I think when you go into that situation, when you have really good people like there was in New Jersey when I went in there, like I was with this group, they're pissed off,” DeBoer said. “They're embarrassed by the year they just had, and they're willing to do and buy into whatever you're selling to get it fixed again. I think I was the benefactor of that.”
The Sharks, of course, had a miserable season in 2014-15, missing out on the playoffs for the first time in 10 seasons.
DeBoer enjoyed Game 6, as evidenced by his wearing the new hat that declared the Sharks as Western Conference champs to his postgame presser. But he also had a message for his club shortly after it posed at center ice with the Clarence Campbell Bowl.
“I told the group that I've been this far once before,” DeBoer said. “As great a night as this is, if you don't win the next round, it's still not a great summer.”
The head coaches of both clubs, including Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, traded barbs throughout the Western Conference Final. It began with the pair exchanging opinions on the officiating and continued with Hitchcock suggesting to DeBoer where to play Patrick Marleau. And late in the series, DeBoer grew agitated with questions stemming from Hitchcock’s mid-series adjustments.
On Monday morning before Game 5, Hitchcock even admitted that he enjoyed the back-and-forth.
“Quite frankly, what you guys report, it's really boring. [The coaches have] got to have some fun, too,” he said, lightheartedly. “Quite frankly, I like anything that takes away from the focus on the players so that they can just play hockey.”
After the series, both coaches, who worked together once in 2011 at the World Championships, expressed their admiration for each other’s clubs.
“Hats off to St. Louis and the fight they put up and how hard they made us work for this series,” DeBoer said. “I know I joked that Hitch and I went back-and-forth about adjustments and things. But he made us work for everything we got this series.
“Their team played right until the buzzer tonight. They had an exceptional season considering the injuries and stuff they had. Hats off to them.”
Hitchcock was shaken after the game, the look of disappointment palpable on his face for a group that had “bonded together here better than any team I've coached in the last 10 years.”
Still, he found time to offer his opinion on what made the Sharks so successful.
“They're fully logged in checking. That's how you win at the end,” Hitchcock said. “Offense will take care of itself if you're fully logged in to check, and you're 100 percent committed to forwards working for [defensemen], and everyone working for the goalie. You're going to win.
“It's very difficult to do. It's very demanding. It's what we preach from day one in training camp. When you get a buy‑in like they have right now, it's like gold.”
Whether the Sharks can turn that gold into lifting the silver chalice will now be determined, starting with Monday’s Game 1 against either Pittsburgh or Tampa Bay.
“I think we'll enjoy this tonight, and our focus will turn to the big prize on Friday,” DeBoer said.