IT’S ABOUT TIME

Sharks fi­nally reach Stan­ley Cup final af­ter years of frus­tra­tion

SundayXtra - - NHLPLAYOFFREPORTNHLREPORT - By Daniel Brown

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Joe Thorn­ton, car­ry­ing a tie in his right hand, was on his way to his press con­fer­ence late Wed­nes­day night when he made a sud­den de­tour.

The Sharks star veered into the fam­ily wait­ing area, step­ping past the ropes of a hall­way at SAP Cen­ter to find his wife, Tabea Pfend­sack. She’d been wait­ing a long time for this, too.

Amid the cheers of on­look­ers, Thorn­ton hugged and kissed his wife to cel­e­brate their first trip to the Stan­ley Cup final. It was ro­man­tic. It was cin­e­matic. It was a re­lief. “I felt like puk­ing all day,” Pfend­sack ad­mit­ted later. “The whole day, I couldn’t eat. And then, when we scored the fourth goal, I could fi­nally re­lax for a few min­utes... un­til I could not re­lax again.”

Sharks fans ev­ery­where can re­late. The team reached the Stan­ley Cup final for the first time in fran­chise his­tory, get­ting there only af­ter 25 years of stom­ach-turn­ing fin­ishes.

Thorn­ton and team­mate Pa­trick Mar­leau served as the poster boys for that an­nual frus­tra­tion — nau­sea, de­liv­ered — ad nau­seum — so their 5-2 vic­tory over the St. Louis Blues in Game 6 of the Western Con­fer­ence Fi­nals came with an air of the sur­real.

This was Sisy­phus get­ting the boul­der up the hill. This was Wile E. Coy­ote catch­ing The Road Run­ner.

So for­eign was this new ter­ri­tory the Sharks can be for­given for not know­ing the drill. Af­ter Thorn­ton hugged his wife, he made his way to­ward the in­ter­view room to face the press. He was still car­ry­ing his tie when a se­cu­rity guard stopped him cold.

“No, no, no,” the guard told him, catch­ing Thorn­ton just as he reached for the door. “Hitch is in there.”

Hitch is Ken Hitch­cock, the Blues coach, who was wrap­ping up the tough­est part of any play­off loss. He had to an­swer ques­tions about what went wrong, why his team felt short, what kind of ad­just­ments will be needed in the off-sea­son... the stuff Thorn­ton and Mar­leau are usu­ally an­swer­ing in late May.

Mar­leau had played 1,411 ca­reer games with­out reach­ing the final and Thorn­ton 1,356. Only one other ac­tive player has has a longer wait — Shane Doan (1,466.)

Can you imag­ine what it’s like to play that long with­out reach­ing the des­ti­na­tion?

“I can’t imag­ine,” said Peter DeBoer, in his first year as Sharks coach, “be­cause all I’ve seen them is the year I’ve spent with them and how hard these guys work ev­ery day, how com­mit­ted they are, how badly they want to win.

“So I can’t imag­ine the stuff writ­ten about them and said about them that they’ve had to deal with. It’s a great night for those guys.”

As Mar­leau and Thorn­ton waited for Hitch to fin­ish his con­so­la­tion speech, they re­turned be­hind the ropes to min­gle with fam­ily and friends. Mar­leau, true to his placid de­meanour, hardly looked like a man cel­e­brat­ing the vindi­ca­tion from a con­fer­ence final tri­umph. He looked as if he’d just clocked out from load­ing the last crate down at the docks.

“He’s a pri­vate per­son,” said his long­time friend Tony Mo­ha­gen, who flew out from Ed­mon­ton for the oc­ca­sion. “He might not show his emo­tions in the me­dia. That’s just how he is and how he’ll al­ways be.

“But peo­ple who know him, the peo­ple that are clos­est to him, know ex­actly what this means. They know ex­actly how much he’s al­ways wanted this.”

Mo­ha­gen, now a fire­fighter in Ed­mon­ton, first played with Mar­leau as 16-year- olds in the Midget AAA Hockey League in Saskatchewan. He’d made this trip once be­fore, fly­ing out af­ter the Sharks led the Los Angeles Kings 3-1 in the first round of the 2014 play­offs.

That time, his va­ca­tion was spent watch­ing the worst col­lapse in Sharks his­tory. This time, Mo­ha­gen got what he came for and has no plans on go­ing back soon.

“I bought a one-way ticket,” he said, smil­ing wide.

Thorn­ton and Mar­leau fi­nally reached the in­ter­view room Wed­nes­day night, join­ing the dais with cap­tain Joe Pavel­ski. Con­sid­er­ing the long jour­ney to get here, and the crit­i­cism they took along the way, this could have been an I-toldyou-so mo­ment. In­stead, Thorn­ton kept dish­ing out as­sists — re­peat­edly de­flect­ing ques­tions away from their per­sonal break­through.

“It’s Chris Tier­ney’s strong goal, Joel Ward, Patty, “Pickles” (Marc-Edouard Vlacic) scor­ing goals,” he said. “Ev­ery­body makes big con­tri­bu­tions. That’s why we’re here right now. It’s be­cause ev­ery­body is mak­ing big con­tri­bu­tions.”

Thorn­ton (who never did put on that tie) and Mar­leau both rolled their eyes when a re­porter ad­dressed a ques­tion to the “two vet­er­ans.” They are 36 years old, still thriv­ing in the NHL, not the AARP.

When an­other re­porter noted Mar­leau has been play­ing long enough to have lots of gray in his play­off beard, the cen­tre protested. “Speck­led,” Mar­leau said, stroking his chin.

Then they tried to ex­plain why, af­ter so many heart­breaks, this time was dif­fer­ent.

“With the new coach­ing staff we needed to re­al­ize how we needed to play to win,” Thorn­ton said. “Once that clicked — and that prob­a­bly clicked maybe early De­cem­ber — we just ex­ploded. I think that’s re­ally when we saw the depth of this team.

“Ev­ery­body plays a big part. Pete has re­ally stressed that it’s go­ing to take ev­ery­body to get where we need to go. I think we’ve all bought into that. We all come to the rink pre­pared, ready to work, then have some fun af­ter.”

Mar­leau said: “I think there’s a big part just stay­ing in the mo­ment, know­ing what we have, the op­por­tu­nity we have right now. For me, that’s the big­gest thing. You don’t make it this far all the time, ob­vi­ously. Just try­ing to seize the mo­ment.”

When the press con­fer­ence broke up, the long­time tag-team part­ners made their way back to­ward the fam­ily area. Thorn­ton hugged his par­ents, Wayne and Mary, who were con­spic­u­ous in their No. 19 Sharks jer­seys.

Mar­leau hugged Thorn­ton’s par­ents, too — the Sharks are one big fam­ily these days. And as ev­ery­one parted ways, Thorn­ton took one last glance over his shoul­der. “See you, Patty,” Thorn­ton said. Yes, he will. Game 1 of the Stan­ley Cup final is Mon­day.

BEN MARGOT / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILES

The San Jose Sharks blew count­less op­por­tu­ni­ties in years past be­fore fi­nally mak­ing it to the Stanley Cup fi­nal this sea­son.

MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILES

San Jose’s Pa­trick Mar­leau suf­fered sea­sons of heart­break be­fore the Sharks van­quished the Blues.

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