By: Luke Johns
The season began with 30 teams, now only two remain. The 2016 Stanley Cup Final begins Memorial Day and will feature two teams with far different histories but similar styles of play. Here’s what to look for in the series that will crown the NHL champion.
Who They Are
The Pittsburgh Penguins are a team that have lost back-to-back games twice this calendar year and have significantly turned their season around since they looked like a borderline Wild Card team in December. Captain Sidney Crosby began the year with just 19 points before a coaching change on Dec. 12 and he’s now a Hart Trophy finalist. The fans have fallen in love with the “HBK Line” that’s Carl Hagelin-Nick Bonino-Phil Kessel, who bring a healthy balance of speed, skill and grit that’s combined for 45 points this postseason. On the back end Kris Letang has logged quality minutes averaging 28:46 and has been everything one can ask for from a number one defenseman. The Penguins have gotten valuable production of rookies such as Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and of course Matt Murray between the pipes. Pittsburgh ended the regular season as the hottest team in the NHL and they certainly didn’t win the East by accident.
The San Jose Sharks have Norris Trophy candidate Brent Burns who leads a top-four defense that includes Paul Martin, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun. Burns has been outstanding leading defenseman with 20 points, Vlasic has the trust of Head Coach Peter DeBoer to be the guy on the ice for defensive zone faceoffs, Martin is a seasoned veteran with lots of playoff experience and Braun has shown spurts of playmaking ability. To make things even better the offensive attack is relentless with Joe Pavelski leading the playoffs with 13 goals, Logan Couture leading the playoffs with 24 points and the third line has been producing in a big way led by Joel Ward’s 11 points. The Sharks have also dominated the third period these playoffs outscoring their opponents 29-14 and are 8-0 when leading after two periods. Stanley Cup winning teams don’t blow leads and that’s what the Sharks are four wins away from.
How They Got Here
The Pittsburgh Penguins entered the playoffs as the Metropolitan two seed and did what they were supposed to do beating the Rangers in five games to begin with, upset the Capitals in six games in round two and edged the Lightning in a thrilling seven-game series. Pittsburgh has returned to the Final for the first time since 2009 largely due to their offensive depth and Mike Sullivan pushing the right buttons as interim head coach.
The Pacific third seed San Jose Sharks erased the 2014 3-0 demons by beating the Kings in round one, followed by eliminating the Predators in a hard-fought seven game series and knocked out the Blues in round three with some dominating performances. The Sharks got to its first Stanley Cup Final with the stellar all-around play from their top-four defensemen and on the backs of the Hertl-Thornton-Pavelski line, which has combined for 50 points this postseason.
Both teams have lethal power plays (San Jose checks in at 27% while Pittsburgh scores 23.4% of the time), so needless to say if you’re going to take a penalty it better be a good one.
What makes San Jose’s power play so effective is their zone entry success. The quicker you can get set up on the power play the more time you have to execute your strategy, and of course with a successful entry the puck won’t be cleared back to your end. The worst thing a penalty killer can do is be flat-footed when the team on the power play is entering the zone. If Pittsburgh penalty killers are able to keep their feet moving at the blue line, San Jose won’t be able to enter the zone as easily.
Pittsburgh’s power play unit is loaded with talent. Having Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel up front with Evgeni Malkin at the point, the sky is the limit with what they can do on the man-advantage. Looking at the Penguins power play goals throughout the playoffs the trend I noticed was many of them resulted from a great shot the goalie never had a chance on. Easier said than done, but San Jose would be wise to have an extremely strong emphasis on shot blocking (i.e. laying your body out, not just trying to get in the way of the shot) and would benefit from a wide box setup when they’re killing the penalty.
The Case For Pittsburgh
I’m still not a believer in Martin Jones yet. He’s been benefiting from outstanding defense that hasn’t allowed opponents to get great scoring opportunities. This postseason I’ve only seen him make two amazing saves and is yet to steal a game on his own. The Penguins finished the regular season third in goals per game and second during this postseason, so they will be without a doubt Jones’ biggest test considering some of the weapons the Penguins have.
When you think of the Penguins you think of speed and its ability to get behind the defense on the forecheck. In the last series they had long stretches of zone time in Tampa Bay’s zone. No matter how great a defense is, if you’re skating around in your zone for 1-2 minutes you’re vulnerable to defensive lapses. If the Penguins are going to win this series it will have to be from scoring on sustained zone pressure because San Jose doesn’t give up odd-man rushes very often, making the sustained zone pressure that much more important. If the Penguins can continue to win races to the puck in the offensive zone that’s where they’ll be playing most of the game, which means only good things.
The Case For San Jose
As great as the Penguins offense is, statistically the Sharks have been better this postseason leading the league in goals per game at 3.5. People may not know much about Joe Pavelski because he plays out in San Jose, but he is the real deal. He can score in a variety of ways, set up scoring chances and even is tough on defense. You can bet Kris Letang is going to be on the ice just about every time the Hertl-Thornton-Pavelski line is out there, especially at home when Sullivan has last change.
When you look at way that line (and the team for that matter) has scored a lot of its goals this postseason, there was someone at and around the front of the net. That gave the Sharks the ability to take away the goalies eyes, redirect a shot or be in good position to bury a rebound. Murray showed be can make the saves and not give up a rebound when he can see the shot off the stick, so if San Jose can continue to have a net-front presence they’ll be tough to keep off the scoreboard.
Mark your calendars. Here’s when and where the action will go down:
(All times 7 p.m. central time and probably subject to change) *If Necessary
-Game 1: Mon. May 30 in Pittsburgh, Pa. TV: NBC
-Game 2: Wed. June 1 in Pittsburgh, Pa. TV: NBCSN
-Game 3: Sat. June 4 in San Jose, Calif. TV: TBD
-Game 4: Mon. June 6 in San Jose, Calif. TV: TBD
-Game 5*: Thur. June 9 in Pittsburgh, Pa. TV: NBC
-Game 6*: Sun. June 12 in San Jose, Calif. TV: NBC
-Game 7*: Wed. June 15 in Pittsburgh, Pa. TV: NBC
(Cover Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/73348032@N00/)