SAN JOSE, Calif. -- More than a few times during the Sharks' incredible season, Mike Rathje has pondered just how much has changed in San Jose since he initially put on the NHL's first teal uniform.
Rathje has been with the Sharks since 1993, when he was a 19-year-old defenseman and the Sharks were absolutely terrible. After years of mediocrity and instability, San Jose is in the Western Conference finals for the first time in its 13-year franchise history - and Rathje is enjoying it as much as the team's loyal fans.
"It's just great for the people who live here and love the Sharks," said Rathje, the longest-tenured player and a full-time San Jose resident. "We've had some successes, but we've never been really close to the Stanley Cup. Hopefully, this is the year we change all that."
Just a year after missing the playoffs and falling to 14th place in the conference, the Sharks won their second Pacific Division title during the best regular season in franchise history. Then they dispatched St. Louis and Colorado in the playoffs, losing just three games in the process.
The Sharks finished off the Avalanche with a 3-1 victory in Denver on Tuesday night, winning the series in six games. The Sharks won with the same strategy they've used to streak through the playoffs so far: speed, discipline, timely offense and superb play by goalie Evgeni Nabokov.
San Jose faces the Calgary Flames and former coach Darryl Sutter on Sunday in the opener of the conference finals. The Shark Tank is sure to be full of teal-clad, towel-waving fans who endured the miserable years along with Rathje and his teammates.
"This is unbelievable for all the players on our team, especially for the guys who have been here a number of times," said coach Ron Wilson, who masterminded the Sharks' dramatic turnaround. "Whether it's Rathje, (Scott) Hannan, (Brad) Stuart, they've been beaten by Colorado before. ... This is a great thing for everybody in San Jose, because the people there deserve it."
The Sharks began this climb in 1991, in a dingy arena 40 miles north of their hometown. They were an expansion franchise at the head of the NHL's major move into nontraditional hockey markets, and they immediately grabbed a North American following with their catchy nickname, cool logo and teal uniforms.
But the Sharks went 28-129-7 in their first two seasons in the Cow Palace, where they were forced to play until San Jose Arena was finished. San Jose had brief success under coach Kevin Constantine over the next two years, earning playoffs upsets over top-seeded Detroit in 1994 and second-seeded Calgary a year later.
But two more dismal seasons followed until Sutter was hired in 1997. Sutter and general manager Dean Lombardi painstakingly rebuilt the organization, from the farm system to the mental state of players accustomed to losing. The Sharks made six consecutive seasons of improvement, finally winning a Pacific Division title in 2002.
Through it all, the Sharks' loyal fans kept the arena filled to at least 96 percent capacity every season. The team became a point of civic pride to the Silicon Valley and San Jose, a town of palm trees and sprawling suburbs constantly overshadowed by picturesque San Francisco.
"A lot of our fans love the Sharks because we're San Jose's team," Rathje said. "People like to have something to be proud of."
Everything fell apart last season, when contract holdouts contributed to a slow start that never got any better. Sutter and Lombardi were fired, and Ron Wilson was hired shortly before former Sharks captain Doug Wilson was promoted to GM.
The Sharks even shocked their coach this season, embracing Ron Wilson's speed-based system and playing with confidence in front of Nabokov's outstanding efforts. They took over first place in the division midway through the season and held it, eventually earning a franchise-best No. 2 seed.
But even then, the Sharks' domination of the Avalanche was astonishing.
Colorado managed just seven goals in the six-game series despite its star-studded roster - and the Sharks only trailed for 21 minutes in the entire series. The Avalanche squeaked out two overtime wins after San Jose went up 3-0 in the series, but except for a dismal effort in Game 5, the Sharks have been incredibly consistent.
Now San Jose is ready for more.
"Any time you beat Colorado, it's huge," Nabokov said. "They have so much over there. You've accomplished something when you beat them anywhere. Moving on to the conference finals is an accomplishment. We have to forget this quickly and move on."