When the Boston Bruins traded perennial All-Star center Joe Thornton to the San Jose Sharks during the 2005-06 season, both struggling clubs were looking to find a way out of last place in their divisions.
A little over three years later, their paths have again led to the same place - the top of the NHL.
The conference leaders and Presidents' Trophy contenders meet for the only time in the regular season on Tuesday in Boston, where the Sharks will continue a five-game road trip and look to end their longest losing streak of the season.
The Bruins selected Thornton with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 draft, but they never found postseason success with the Canadian star and began a rebuilding process when they sent him to San Jose for Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau on Nov. 30, 2005.
Thornton immediately helped turn around the Sharks, who had lost 10 straight before the trade but won their first six games afterward, reaching the 2006 playoffs as Thornton had 92 points in 58 games with the club to earn the Hart Trophy.
San Jose (36-7-7) has gotten even better since then, streaking to a 22-3-1 start this season under rookie coach Todd McLellan. The Sharks hold a two-point lead on defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit in the Western Conference with three games in hand on the Red Wings.
"We've been real consistent since day one," Thornton said. "We try to play hard each and every night, and we've got lots of talent."
It has taken Boston a bit longer to join the NHL's elite, but third-year general manager Peter Chiarelli and second-year coach Claude Julien have rebuilt the Bruins (39-8-7) into the top team in the East.
Sturm is the only player acquired in the Thornton trade who remains with Boston, and he's out for the season after knee surgery. But a bevy of emerging young players have helped the Bruins lead the league with a 2.15 goals-against average and rank second with 3.41 goals scored per game.
While the Bruins haven't won a title since 1972, the Sharks have never even advanced past the conference finals, adding intrigue to this possible Cup finals preview.
"Obviously we've still got a lot of hockey to work out here," said Thornton about meeting Boston in the finals. "If that were to be the case it would be great."
Still, both teams are coming off overtime losses on Saturday, and San Jose's 3-2 loss at Columbus to open a five-game trip was its third consecutive defeat. The Sharks hadn't lost three straight since a five-game slide from Feb. 12-20.
The Bruins coughed up an early two-goal lead and lost 4-3 in overtime to Philadelphia to snap their four-game winning streak. They also blew a two-goal lead Thursday at Ottawa, but recovered to win in a shootout.
"We've got 85 points, we're doing fine, we have to sharpen up now, that's a couple of leads we've let slip lately," Bruins center Marc Savard told his team's official Web site. "We have to look at that. ... We have a great test coming in here Tuesday and we're all excited about that."
The Bruins were recently getting healthier with the returns of young forwards Phil Kessel and Milan Lucic and defenseman Andrew Ference, but they'll be without second-liner Michael Ryder for up to three weeks after he had surgery Monday on a facial fracture. Ryder has 16 goals in his last 30 games.
This is the Sharks' first visit to Boston since Jan. 10, 2006, when Thornton made his only trip to the Garden as an opponent and was ejected early in San Jose's 6-2 win for a hit from behind.
"There aren't too many ex-teammates over there, and it's just really an important game in the schedule," Thornton said this week.