SAN JOSE — Neatly framed but almost forgotten, a front page from the San Jose Mercury News sits against the wall in a room above the Sharks' practice rink. The newspaper photograph depicts a coach and two players, and the headline is bold:
"Contenders for the Cup."
The players are goaltender Arturs Irbe and forward Sergei Makarov and the coach is Kevin Constantine. The year was 1994 and the eighth-seeded Sharks, in only their third season, were the darlings of the NHL for upsetting the No. 1 Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the playoffs before losing to the No. 2 Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games.
Nearly 20 years later the Sharks are still contending for their first Stanley Cup championship.
They went to the Western Conference finals in 2004, 2010 and 2011 but never reached the Cup final. It's not for lack of talent, scoring or fine goaltending. They've had all of those elements. But they've also been on the wrong end of a No. 8-vs.-No. 1 upset against the Ducks in 2009 after setting franchise records of 53 wins and 117 points, and they didn't escape the first round last season.
This season, seeded No. 6, the Sharks swept the No. 3 Vancouver Canucks in the first round. The Sharks lost the first two games of the conference semifinals to the Kings but won Game 3 at home in overtime, making Game 4 on Tuesday in San Jose a defining moment.
Will the Sharks repeat the many things they've done right and tie the series, or will their old lack of finishing fire return and drop them in a 3-1 series hole? They know they face a formidable obstacle.
"We're playing the defending champs and you can tell they're not going to beat themselves," Sharks center Scott Gomez said Monday. "That team, just from them going all the way, you can see it over there. There's no panic. ... You can tell that's a machine over there and we've got to be at our best."
For the Sharks, that means using their skill and fighting for every inch of ice. It helps that they've added — pardon the pun — more bite to their game.
With a generally young defense, new faces up front and the maturation of Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture, the Sharks are a more blue-collar team that can play a north-south speed game. To get there they traded defenseman Douglas Murray and forwards Ryane Clowe and Michal Handzus, creating room for such youngsters as Matt Irwin and Tommy Wingels.
In January they signed Gomez, a two-time Cup winner with New Jersey who had been bought out by the Montreal Canadiens, and he has a calming influence. Defenseman-turned-forward Brent Burns is the opposite: He's a wild card on the ice and gives opponents fits.
"This team's a little bit different than it was in the past. A few more characters that are involved in the team," Sharks Coach Todd McLellan said. "Probably, with all due respect to the players that are here and the ones that have gone, less name-like players. Stars, if you will. And more of a team feel."
Those characters have brought much-needed character and versatility. With Couture and Pavelski evolving into big-name players, the Sharks don't have to depend solely on Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.
"We used to build lines around some of those star players and there was a lot of pressure put on that group of players," McLellan said, "and when it didn't go well it was on their shoulders and everybody else was off the hook. This year, with the characters that we have and the way we've built our lines, everybody is responsible. Not just the so-called stars.
"But worker bees have to work and the stars have to perform. From the trade deadline on we've had a pretty good mix, a belief that we can do it with the group that we have."
Thornton, 33, said he likes the new identity.
"We feel like we're all worker bees. We don't feel like we're stars," he said. "We just feel like we all just come to work every night and leave it all out there."
Gomez played 12 seasons in the East and knew little about the Sharks besides recognizing their deep talent. Once on board, he realized he could help best by passing along wisdom he learned from Scott Stevens, Bobby Holik and Larry Robinson, then the Devils' coach and now a Sharks associate coach.
"I got an Ivy League education in hockey right away," Gomez said, recalling he once asked Devils teammate Claude Lemieux to ease up on him and was promptly told his attitude would get him a one-way ticket to the minor leagues.
"I've been fortunate to win and there's nothing more addicting than winning. I've seen the big boys, the Hall of Famers, sacrifice a little for the good of the team, and that's kind of the way you get brainwashed when you grow up in that system.
"At the end, the parties are a lot funner when you win. That was kind of our motto."
The Sharks haven't had a Cup-winning party. To enjoy one this year they'll have to get past being perennial contenders.