PITTSBURGH — It wasn't supposed to take the Sharks this long to reach their first Stanley Cup final. It wasn't supposed to take this long for Sidney Crosby to guide the Penguins back to a destination many figured they would become a fixture at after winning it all in 2009. Not that either side is complaining. Not the Sharks, whose nearly quarter-century wait to play on the NHL's biggest stage ends tonight when the puck drops for Game 1. And not Crosby, who raised the Cup after beating the Red Wings seven years ago but has spent a significant portion of the interim dealing with concussions that threatened to derail his career and fending off criticism as the thoughtful captain of a team whose explosiveness during the regular season too often has failed to translate into regular mid-June parades through the heart of the city.
San Jose has one of its deepest teams ever with four lines capable of producing and two top defensive pairs in front of first-year starting goalie Martin Jones. But it is still led by its stars, with the top line of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl dominating through the playoffs. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun have been a shut-down defensive pair this postseason. Defenseman Brent Burns helps lead a power-play unit that has 17 goals this postseason. The Penguins are back in the final due in large part to general manager Jim Rutherford's roster overhaul that rebuilt the team around star forwards Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang. Pittsburgh's rise through the Eastern Conference coincided with the hiring of coach Mike Sullivan in mid December after Mike Johnston was fired and Crosby's re-emergence as one of the league's most dangerous players. Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin — dubbed the "HBK" line — have given the Penguins the kind of depth they lacked in years past, combining for 17 goals and 28 assists through the first three rounds of the postseason. Kessel's nine postseason goals lead the team.
Sharks' key player
Joe Thornton. The No. 1 overall draft pick in 1997 has been one of the NHL's top players for the better part of two decades. But postseason success had eluded him until this season. The center is playing the best two-way hockey of his career, adding strong defensive play to his elite passing skills. With Thornton on the ice, the Sharks have controlled possession in the postseason, which has been a major reason for their success.
Pittsburgh's key player
Matt Murray. The 22-year-old was supposed to be the Penguins' goalie of the future. His tenure started earlier than expected when Marc-Andre Fleury suffered his second concussion of the season March 31. Murray is 11-4 in his first NHL postseason.
San Jose's run has been spearheaded by a power play that is converting at 27 percent (17-of-63). The Sharks are 9-2 when they score with the man advantage in the playoffs, 3-4 when they don't.
A country for old men
Both teams have relied heavily on players who began their NHL careers in another millennium. Pittsburgh center Matt Cullen, who turns 40 in November, has four goals in the playoffs. Sharks forwards Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, both 36, were taken with the top two picks in the 1997 draft. San Jose center Dainius Zubrus, 37, draws stares from younger teammates when he tells them he used to play against Hall of Famer (and current Penguins owner) Mario Lemieux. "When I say, 'Twenty years ago I was playing against Lemieux,' they say, 'I was 2 years old,' " Zubrus said.