There was center Logan Couture on the game-winner, cashing in a sweet feed from left wing Patrick Marleau, who had redirected a typically crafty, creative pass from Thornton, operating out of his office along the right boards. It's interesting to see Couture (21 goals, 37 points in the regular season), 24, and in just his third full year, starting to eclipse veterans Thornton (7, 40) and Marleau (17, 31) as San Jose's best player and primary alpha.
Perhaps that change will do the Sharks good. In addition to being the odd men out in their own state, where the Ducks and Kings have both won Cups, San Jose is generally considered the best team in today's NHL never to win it all.
But one of the benefits of operating in a nontraditional hockey market is that "there's a bit less pressure," says Robitaille, who notes that all three California teams "were allowed to rebuild the right way, through the draft."
"Maybe there's something to that," says Sharks coach Todd McLellan, 45, who points out that his five seasons behind the bench in San Jose make him the fifth-longest-tenured coach in the league, "even though I'm not a very old coach." We'll see how young he feels if this series goes seven games.
McLellan was a 20-year-old prospect in the Islanders' system in the summer of 1988, when the Gretzky trade went down. Nelson Riis, a member of Canada's parliament, had urged the government to block the trade. He was needled by citizens from both countries for declaring that Gretzky "is a national symbol, like the beaver."
Riis, it turns out, was less of a caricature than a Cassandra. In the near term the deal looked like a draw: The Kings got the best player in the history of hockey; the Oilers won another Cup. It's now clear that the trade set in motion a series of events that tipped the NHL's balance of power from one country to another. "It was fabulous for the game in the United States," says McLellan, "and California in particular."
From the NHL down to the squirts, the hockey boom in California is massive and irreversible. Players and coaches who come to the Golden State tend to stick around. They can check out any time they like, but they never leave.