PITTSBURGH—The story, almost too good to be true, wasn’t supposed to end this way.
It was supposed to end with Joe Pavelski – USHLer, Wisconsin Badger, no-hope seventh round pick, late bloomer – lifting the Stanley Cup, with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, men who once held the captaincy that Pavelski now holds, smiling through their heavy beards in joyous celebration right beside him.
One big, happy family of champions.
That was the fairy tale. Harsh reality has proven to be something else entirely.
Instead, you have Pavelski, goalless in the first four games of the Stanley Cup Final, mouthing the same cliches that every team that falls far behind in an NHL playoff series has to mouth, and his coach insisting his captain’s individual cold snap is about to end.
"He’s close to breaking out," said Peter DeBoer on Wednesday. "He feels he can be a difference in a game. He always does."
That it has gone this smoothly, Pavelski’s ascendancy to the captaincy while surrounded by two, older ex-captains, has been one of the NHL’s most unusual stories over the past couple of seasons. If relatively quiet San Jose were Toronto, Philadelphia, Montreal or Vancouver, it’s impossible to think it would have happened quite so painlessly, at least from the public’s perspective.
It was way back in 2009 that Marleau had the captaincy taken away, something he accepted, at least until last fall when he asked for a trade. The trade never happened, and we’ll see where this goes in the off-season.
Thornton took over after Marleau, but two summers ago, he was stripped of the captaincy. Last season, the club didn’t have a captain, but in March the festering situation broke open when, after GM Doug Wilson said he felt Thornton had allowed the "pressure and stress" of the captaincy to affect his play, Thornton fired back, saying Wilson "just needs to stop lying, shut his mouth."
Throughout the season, Wilson had made it abundantly clear that he wanted Pavelski to take over. Head coach Todd MacLellan disagreed, and when the Sharks missed the playoffs, it was no surprise that MacLellan was fired and soon after the "C" was sewn on to Pavelski’s No. 8 jersey.
Today all three players – Pavelski, Thornton, Marleau – still happily exist on the same team, unprecedented in the history of this sport, and there’s no evidence hard feelings remain. Imagine Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both stripped of the Penguins captaincy and still playing for the team while Kris Letang assumed the leadership of the team, particularly if Crosby had gone through a public feud with GM Jim Rutherford.
It’s a very, very strange dynamic. Yet it has worked in San Jose, with Pavelski leading the team with 38 goals and Thornton playing himself back on to Team Canada for next fall’s World Cup. Certainly, you can’t point to the very average play of the Sharks so far in this Cup Final against Pittsburgh and say Pavelski’s captaincy is one of the reasons.
But with the Sharks down 3-1, it’s time for the 31-year-old Pavelski to lead with offence. He had 13 goals in 18 games in the the post-season before this Final, but either he’s gone cold, or has found himself befuddled by Pittsburgh’s checking patterns.
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) June 7, 2016
There was a telling moment in Game 4 on Monday night. Pavelski found himself open to the side of the Pittsburgh net and swiped at a loose puck, which he either fanned on or jumped over his stick. He then went to boards with Nick Bonino, and it was Bonino who won the one-on-one battle and moved the puck to safety.
It was just one moment, but just not the recipe for a captain intent on leading his team to a Cup. When he scores, the Sharks tend to win. Twelve of his playoff goals this spring have come in 13 San Jose victories. Just one of his goals came in his club’s nine losses.
He’s had nine shots in the Cup Final, five in Game 4, but no goals, just like Thornton, just like Brent Burns. That absence of production has left the scoring to San Jose’s lesser lights, and left the Sharks looking nothing like the club that knocked off St. Louis in the Western Conference final.
"We just need to get our swagger back," said forward Joel Ward.
Tough to do, however, when you’re captain and best players are misfiring. So the road to a historic comeback in this season probably begins with Pavelski.
"We know what kind of belief we have in this room," said the Sharks captain.
Oddly, one of the motivating tools DeBoer was using with his group on Wednesday was the memory of his team’s 2014 playoff loss to the Los Angeles Kings in which the Sharks built a 3-0 series lead and then lost the next four games.
DeBoer even said his assistant, Bob Bougher, was kidding his other assistant, Steve Spott, about the 2014 OHL Western Conference final when Spott’s Kitchener Rangers blew a 3-0 series lead to Bougher’s Windsor Spitfires.
"We’ve just to give ourselves an opportunity that if (the Penguins) stumble, we’re going to jump on it," said DeBoer.
Only 10 Sharks remain from that disastrous ’14 playoff collapse.
"They know how quickly a win can change momentum," said DeBoer. "They’ve been where Pittsburgh is sitting right now."
Three one-goal losses, including one in OT, certainly aren’t evidence of a Sharks team in disarray or panic. There’s just an understanding of the grim reality of the situation, with Pittsburgh anxious to clinch the Cup at home Thursday night.
The Sharks know that if one of their stars, like Pavelski, gets hot, there remains in the possibility for this series to change. But San Jose’s running out of runway. It has to happen now.