Taking a look at this year’s Stanley Cup Final, one can’t help but look at the match-up between the San Jose Sharks and the Pittsburgh Penguins and see two teams that are almost exact replicas of one another. They’re both fast teams that are aggressive in the offensive zone. Both teams are great at limiting shots on goal in their own end of the ice and playing physical when they have to. There’s plenty of superstars and tremendous special teams play on both sides. Both of them have young goaltenders that have risen to the occasion when called upon in their first playoff as starting netminders.
And that’s just how they stack up on the ice. Off the ice, there’s plenty of narratives to keep you busy. The Sharks making it to their first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history. San Jose’s Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau reaching the championship stage for the first time in their long, illustrious careers. The Penguins looking to win their fourth Stanley Cup after making a mid-season coaching change, much like they did in 2008-09 when they won their last Cup. Both the Penguins and Sharks reversing their fortunes after less-than-stellar starts and roaring into the playoffs. Better strap on your seat belts and put those tray tables in the upright and locked position, because it’s going to be a wild ride in the Stanley Cup Final.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
San Jose – They took down the arch rival Los Angeles Kings in five games, outlasted the Nashville Predators by winning every home game in a seven-game second-round series, and exerted their will over the St. Louis Blues in six games in the Western Conference Finals.
Pittsburgh – They easily dusted off the New York Rangers in five games in the opening round, eliminated the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in six games in the second round, and in the Eastern Conference Finals they needed seven games to knock out a determined Tampa Bay Lightning team despite controlling play for much of the series.
FIVE KEYS TO THE SERIES
Breaking Out the Big Guns – As important as it is to have depth players that can chip in offensively, you typically don’t make it this far without major contributions from your star players. The Sharks have gotten that in spades from Joe Pavelski (leads the NHL with 13 goals), Joe Thornton (18 points in 18 games), Logan Couture (leads the NHL with 26 points), and Brent Burns (20 points in 18 games). With the Penguins, it took some time for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to get going, but when they did in the Eastern Conference Finals, they were unstoppable, as Crosby had three game-winning goals against Tampa Bay and Malkin had five points in seven games against them. However, it has been the HBK line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel that has been Pittsburgh’s best trio in the playoffs, with Kessel leading the team in goals (9) and points (18) while looking like a serious contender for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Keeping up the offense from their stars will go a long way in determining who hoists the Stanley Cup at the end of this series.
Depth Can’t Be Overlooked – Although getting goals and scoring chances from your best players is obviously crucial, a team’s depth is more important at this time of year than any other, and both the Sharks and Penguins have plenty of guys in their bottom two lines that have played a big part in their march to the Final. San Jose’s third line of Joel Ward, Chris Tierney, and Melker Karlsson has been tremendous for the Sharks throughout the playoffs, while the HBK line would easily be the first or second line for several NHL teams. They helped keep the Pens afloat when Crosby and Malkin were struggling to get things going earlier in the postseason. In addition, players like Bryan Rust and Matt Cullen have come up with clutch goals when Pittsburgh has needed them. With both of these teams among the best in the postseason at keeping the puck out of their own net, there will be a point when each group’s big-name players could hit a wall, which is where their depth will come into play.
Which Team Will Assert Themselves? – If you’ve watched either of these teams closely throughout the playoffs, particularly in the conference finals, you probably noticed that they each did a phenomenal job of dictating the flow of play. The Penguins held the puck in the Lightning’s zone for long stretches of time and had a huge edge in shots on goal and quality scoring chances. Without Andrei Vasilevskiy in net for Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh would’ve ended that series before seven games, as they routinely bottled up the Lightning in the neutral zone. San Jose’s heavy forecheck in the offensive zone and their stellar play in the defensive zone constantly pressured St. Louis into making mistakes, leading to a big edge in shot attempts for the Sharks and limiting the Blues’ opportunities. San Jose can roll four lines and their defensive corps’s ability to shut down big-time offensive players throughout the playoffs, combined with their relentless style of play, has shut down the likes of the Kings’ Tyler Toffoli, the Predators’ Filip Forsberg, and the Blues’ Vladimir Tarasenko, all players who had 30-plus goals in the regular season. San Jose has also allowed the fewest shots on goal per game per 60 minutes of play in the postseason. The Penguins present a unique challenge, as their top three lines all have at least one elite scorer. Conversely, Pittsburgh hasn’t seen a lineup like San Jose’s in which so many star players are clicking on all cylinders at the same time. Let the chess match begin.
Martin Jones vs. Matt Murray – Before this season, neither of these goalies had been a starter in the NHL level, much less started a playoff game. Murray was called up earlier in the regular season, and then took over in net when Marc-Andre Fleury went down with a concussion on March 31. Murray has been a cool customer since then, making some big saves for the Penguins when they’ve needed them and not getting down after briefly losing his starting job for a game against Tampa Bay. Jones was acquired from the Bruins in a trade last off-season after Boston picked him up in a separate deal from Los Angeles, where he had served as Jonathan Quick’s backup. Jones hasn’t had to steal any games for the Sharks in the playoffs, but when they’ve needed him to make a timely clutch save, Jones has delivered. Both goalies have a tendency to give up rebounds, so it’ll be important for both sides to pounce on any second-chance opportunities they might get.
Making The Opposition Pay For Penalties – San Jose’s power play has been operating at a dominant pace throughout the playoffs, scoring on 27% of their man-advantage opportunities entering the Stanley Cup Final. Pittsburgh’s power play has been clicking at a 23.4% rate, which isn’t quite as stellar as the Sharks, but still dangerous enough to make you pay for taking penalties. Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and defenseman Kris Letang are all lethal options for the Penguins with the man-advantage. All of the Sharks’ big guns see significant power play time, and watching them with a man-advantage is mesmerizing, as there’s rarely any wasted passes or movement. Although San Jose’s power play is very structured, they’re not afraid to shoot the puck from anywhere at any time.
With two teams that are so evenly-matched, featuring plenty of star power, speed, defensive prowess and steady goaltending, it’ll come down to which team is able to dictate their style of play throughout the series. San Jose has yet to play a team with at least three lines that are capable of scoring like Pittsburgh has, while the Penguins have yet to play a team like the Sharks that can roll four lines, shut down the opposition, and get major contributions from every one of its star players. In what should be a back-and-forth series featuring some extremely fast hockey, this is not an easy series to predict. Crosby and Malkin found their groove in the Eastern Conference Finals, while the HBK line (Kessel in particular), is playing some of the best hockey of their careers. But in the end, I’m going with San Jose to raise the Cup at the end of this series. This is not the same old disappointing Sharks team we’ve seen in the playoffs time-and-time again. This is a team that’s played with fewer expectations than they have in years and now they’ve gotten farther in the playoffs than they’ve ever been before. I believe this is the year when they finally shed the label of playoff disappointments and become champions.
PREDICTION: Sharks in 6
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