PITTSBURGH – Allegedly incapable of getting their team over the hump, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau basked in the light of flashing cameras Sunday four wins from getting the last laugh.
Directly across the street from CONSOL Energy Center, a parking lot now sits where the Igloo used to stand. It was there 6,917 days ago in June 1997 where Thornton and Marleau were drafted 1-2 overall, Thornton by the Boston Bruins, Marleau by the San Jose Sharks six years after their inaugural 58-loss, 39-point season.
Nineteen years later, the often maligned Thornton and Marleau, two 36-year-old former Sharks captains who have both had that “C” stripped right off their chests yet are somehow still wearing black and teal — are back in Pittsburgh potentially within days of winning hockey’s ultimate prize.
Standing in the Sharks’ way are Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and the Penguins.
“I was drafted in ’05, so I know these guys for 10 years now and I’ve seen what Jumbo goes through and what Patty goes through and how everybody talks about them coming up short over the years, but they’re some of the hardest-working guys that you see. I’m telling you, it’s a bad rap,” said Alex Stalock, the longtime Sharks backup goalie who was traded to Toronto in February yet is still growing a mullet in support of such friends and ex-teammates as Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture.
“I guess you have to be there to see what they’re all about. San Jose is the real deal.”
It’s extraordinary the Sharks are here, considering the turmoil this franchise has had to overcome.
The ultimate teases, their alleged downfall began two years ago when they coughed up a 3-0 series lead to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. A few months later, General Manager Doug Wilson removed the captaincy from Thornton, aiming to change the culture.
There were rumors Wilson wanted to trade Thornton and Marleau, but neither would waive a no-trade clause. There was chatter about a rift in the locker room, something that was all but confirmed when a team bonding session was called before the 2014-2015 season in Lake Tahoe. It was said Sharks players were more like “co-workers than teammates.”
“After what happened two years ago against L.A., that’s never easy for any team,” Stalock said. “We sat down and said, ‘What are our issues? What do we need to figure out?’ Guys got stuff off their chest, said, ‘Hey, you need to do this, we need to do this.’ It was pretty amazing.”
Still, the Sharks didn’t make the playoffs last year, and late in the season Thornton and Wilson got into a public feud after it got out that Wilson told season-ticket holders that Thornton had the “C” taken away in part because he “lashes out at people” when stressed.
Thornton responded by telling the San Jose Mercury News that his GM “just needs to stop lying [and] shut his mouth.”
Todd McLellan was fired as coach, and in came Pete DeBoer. Still, the Sharks got off to a slow start, and Marleau reportedly asked to be traded to one of three teams.
“We struggled. Winning one, losing one, winning one, losing one,” Thornton said. “With the new coaching staff, we needed to realize how we needed to play to win. Once that clicked, and that probably clicked maybe early December, I think after that, we just exploded. I think that’s really when we saw the depth of this team.”
Pavelski took ownership of the team he was now captaining. Brent Burns, finally permanently a defenseman, became an offensive star and less manic defensively. Free-agent pickups Joel Ward and Paul Martin and new goalie Martin Jones not only contributed on the ice, they helped “level” the locker room, according to Sharks radio analyst Bret Hedican.
Thornton led the team with 63 assists and 82 points.
“Thornton is the same guy I’ve seen since the day I got here,” Hedican said. “If anything, he’s gotten better. I’m still amazed how he’s able to see a play in advance or how he takes a hit and can come out of the plow and still put it on a guy’s tape for a goal.
“And it’s not like once every three games. It’s legitimately every night. It’s like people think he just started playing this way and is miraculously playing awesome. I just scratch my head the way people talk about Joe Thornton. They don’t have a clue.”
If there were hurt feelings by losing the captaincy, Thornton pushed them aside. Pavelski said Sunday that while awkward at first, it was “Jumbo who told me early, ‘You’re the man. Let’s go to work. Let’s move forward.’ ”
“He doesn’t care,” Hedican said of Thornton. “Joe Thornton wants to win a Cup. It’s the only thing on his mind. Joe is still the alpha male and leader in the locker room, and Pavelski is the frontman of the band. It’s been fun to see his leadership come to the forefront this year.
“I mean, Pavelski’s a captain, man.”
Somehow, despite so much mayhem, this dysfunctional situation has gotten back on the rails.
And, as much as it pains Stalock to not be part of this, he’s still back in Minnesota “pulling for the boys.”
“We said last year, ‘Maybe we need to go through this to get where we want to be,’ ” Stalock said. “I think last year was big for the group. Last year, I think, is what led to this year. Maybe it took a year to figure it out because it’s really come to fruition now and all the pieces are fitting. It shows what’s really going on in that room. The guys want it that bad.”