PITTSBURGH -- The stars weren't producing, the on-ice chemistry wasn't there and the organization felt the coach needed to go. The San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins reached similar conclusions only months apart.
On Monday night, two successful franchises -- one with three NHL championships on its resume, the other seeking its first -- will play Game 1 of a Stanley Cup finals that neither team realistically expected to reach not that long ago.
The Penguins, barely above .500 and skating on thin ice with the unproven Mike Johnston as coach, made a move in mid-December and brought in their top minor league coach, Mike Sullivan, as head coach. They are 45-22-5 since then.
Now they are trying now to replicate what they did in 2009, when they fired Michel Therrien as coach at midseason and promoted minor league coach Dan Bylsma. Four months later, they won the Stanley Cup.
"This probably wasn't the scenario I envisioned, to get (to the finals) this quickly," Sullivan said Sunday. "We've been determined to make every day count (since he was hired)."
And to make every player count.
The Penguins, going against their long-standing tradition of leaning heavily on stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at every critical juncture of a season or a game, cut their playing time -- especially Malkin's at times -- as Sullivan rolled four lines with the kind of depth they lacked since reaching back-to-back Cup finals in 2008 and 2009.
"You see it every day -- he brings a lot of energy, a lot of passion," said right wing Bryan Rust, who played part of the season for Sullivan at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL). Rust scored both Penguins goals in a 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday.
For the Sharks, their turnaround began at the end of last season, when the franchise's leader in career coaching wins, Todd McLellan, was fired after going 40-33-9. New coach Peter DeBoer, who formerly coached the Florida Panthers and New Jersey Devils, brought in a system that emphasized pressuring the opponent and giving the team's stars the time and space to make plays.
The Sharks went on to go 46-30-6 as new players made significant contributions -- new goalie Martin Jones won 37 games -- and longtime franchise icon Joe Thornton went from producing 65 points and being a minus-4 to getting 82 points and being a plus-25 this season. Linemate Joe Pavelski leads the NHL with 13 playoff goals.
"We just get out of (Thornton's way) and see a spot on the ice and go to it, and he finds us and we score goals," linemate Tomas Hertl said of how Thornton creates plays for him and Pavelski.
The Sharks know they must slow the Pittsburgh speed that improved significantly this season with the infusion of a half-dozen players from the minors and longtime Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel (nine playoff goals). That high-grade speed helped the Penguins eliminate their perennial playoff nemesis Rangers, the NHL regular-season leading Washington Capitals and the defending Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
"You have to make a group effort to be conscious with the puck ... you can't be trying to make (unwise) plays to the middle where it can feed that speed," Pavelski said. "We need to lay pucks in, get pucks out, simple things we have control over."
The Sharks also will lean on shutdown defensemen Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Brown to slow Crosby, who has one goal in 10 career games against them. But the Penguins' depth is superior to that of any Western Conference team San Jose met in the playoffs. Pittsburgh's No. 3 line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Kessel is its most productive.
As Sharks defenseman Paul Martin pointed out, the Penguins have only four forwards remaining from the teams he played on the previous five seasons.
The goaltender matchup is one of the most intriguing in NHL history -- the 26-year-old Jones, a former Los Angeles Kings backup who never was a full-time starter until this season with San Jose, against 22-year-old Matt Murray, who is 11-4 while appearing in more NHL playoff games (15) than regular-season games (13).
The teams met twice in 10 days during the regular season, with the Sharks winning 3-1 in Pittsburgh on Nov. 21, but the Penguins winning 5-1 in San Jose on Dec. 1. They have faced each other only 35 times in the last 25 regular seasons.