Unlikely combatants vie for Stanley Cup

PITTSBURGH -- The San Jose Sharks crashed the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in the franchise's 25-year history.But it's not a stretch to say the Pittsburgh Penguins were even more unlikely to be one of the final two teams remaining.The Sh...

Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan instructs players during practice on Sunday a day before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final in Pittsburgh. Charles LeClaire / USA Today Sports

PITTSBURGH - The San Jose Sharks crashed the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in the franchise’s 25-year history.
But it’s not a stretch to say the Pittsburgh Penguins were even more unlikely to be one of the final two teams remaining.
The Sharks and Penguins begin their quest for the Stanley Cup title tonight in Pittsburgh, and the Penguins will aim to continue a resurgence that began Dec. 12 when Mike Johnston was fired as coach and replaced by Mike Sullivan.
Pittsburgh was floundering in ninth place in the Eastern Conference at the time and Sullivan, who played 171 games with the Sharks from 1991-94, began pecking away at the team’s mindset. He requested a more intense and resilient approach and results soon followed.
Underachieving players began to perform better and victories seemed to arrive in bushels.
“I know there’s a lot of stories that surround this group, but the greatest story of all is the group itself,” Sullivan said Sunday at Media Day. “When you’re part of something that’s bigger than yourself it’s a special feeling, and I know these guys have it right now.”
The Penguins are fresh off a seven-game series victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals. Suddenly, they are four wins away from winning the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2009.
“We didn’t think we would be in this situation around Christmas,” Pittsburgh right wing Patric Hornqvist said. “We were not even in a playoff race. Since January we’ve been a (heck) of a team. We’ve been improving every single day and I can’t say enough, how proud I am of this group. But we’re not done yet.”
The Sharks advanced by ousting the St. Louis Blues in six games in the Western Conference finals.
San Jose reached the conference finals in both 2010-11 before losing and long-time stalwarts such as left wing Patrick Marleau, center Joe Pavelski and center Joe Thornton appreciate finally getting to lace up their skates for a Stanley Cup game.
“You’ve got to keep putting your foot in the door and creating opportunities,” Pavelski said. “It has taken a lot longer to break through then we would have thought. There’s a lot of work to be done now. It is going to take a big effort from our guys.”
The Sharks also rate as a surprise finalist - not simply because it is their debut, but because they didn’t even qualify for the playoffs last season.
But new coach Peter DeBoer helped prompt a revival as his methods clicked with the team’s veteran cast.
“Everyone was ready for something a little fresher,” DeBoer said.
Pavelski has been superb in the postseason with a league-leading 13 goals and his 22 points rank second behind teammate Logan Couture, who leads in postseason points (24) and assists (16).
Right wing Phil Kessel leads the Penguins with 18 points (nine goals, nine assists). Centers Sidney Crosby (six points, nine assists), Evgeni Malkin (four goals, 11 assists) and Nick Bonino (three goals, 12 assists) all have 15 points.
Bonino didn’t practice Sunday but Sullivan said he likely will play in Game 1. Bonino was hit in his left leg by a puck during Thursday’s clinching win against Tampa Bay.
San Jose hopes to have left wing Matt Nieto on the ice after missing the past seven games with an upper-body injury.
The teams split two regular-season meetings. The Sharks posted a 3-1 victory at Pittsburgh on Nov. 21 and the Penguins returned serve with a 5-1 win at San Jose on Dec. 1.

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