Stanley Cup Finals: San Jose Sharks vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Regular season series: The two teams split the regular match up with the road team winning both times, with the Sharks winning 3-1 and then the Penguins winning 5-1 a month later.
San Jose Sharks:
How the Sharks got here: The Sharks shocked a lot of people by defeating the Los Angeles Kings in five games in round one, went on to dispatch the Predators in a lengthy seven-game series, and then defeated the St. Louis Blues in six games to move onto the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final.
Important Number: 315. The number of combined playoff games that Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau had played without a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. This is important whether you swear by playoff experience or by beginners’ luck, and, either way, their experience will play a roll in the final.
Cliché player to watch: Martin Jones. The Sharks goalie has been pretty good this postseason posting a modest 2.12 GAA and .919 save percentage. The Sharks will need him to play even better this series to combat the high-powered Penguins offense that is both deep and powerful.
Actual player to watch: Martin Jones. Yeah, Jones fits in both categories. Jones has also had his less-than-shining moments this playoffs including letting in four goals on 19 shots, which got him pulled in the previous series. There will be zero room in any of these games against the Penguins and the Sharks don’t have a reliable backup like the Penguins. The Sharks defense will play well in front of him, and Jones can’t win the series for the Sharks, but he can certainly lose it for him.
If they win, who wins the Conn Smythe Trophy: Joe Pavelski leads the team with 13 goals, five more than the next Shark with four of those goals being game-winners, which checks out to be more than enough to win the Conn Smythe.
How they win: The Sharks play fast, fast, and fast. They have a high-powered offense with a solid defensive core that makes it frustrating to score, including Norris Trophy finalist Brent Burns, who as a defenseman has more points than the top point-scorer on the opposing Penguins. Jones will have to be on the top of his game. He won’t have to steal them any games, but he certainly cannot lose any of them. One thing the Sharks also have going for them is the sense of exceeding expectations. Yes, they want to win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup, but the pressure from the fans is off now that, after years of playoff disappointment, they have finally made it over the hump to the Finals. A relaxed mentality can do wonders for a group’s first time on the NHL’s biggest stage.
How the Penguins got here: The Penguins easily beat the New York Rangers surprisingly in five games in round one, dispatched the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in round two, and fought back from a 3-2 series deficit to defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning in a seven-game classic series.
Important Number: 5. The number of power play goals Phil Kessel has this post season, which is good enough for the playoff lead. The Penguins will need both their power play and their top power play scorer to keep up with the Sharks, who hold an impressive 27% on the power play.
Cliché player to watch: Sidney Crosby. Highly regarded as the best player on the planet, Crosby has had his fair share of struggles this postseason. After posting eight points in the first five games of the playoffs, he has only posted seven points in the 13 games since that opening round. He is going to need to be much better if he wants another Stanley Cup, or we will hear the dreaded onslaught of the Peyton Manning treatment from the media questioning his ability to win in the playoffs when it counts.
Actual player to watch: Kris Letang. Letang is the other Norris Trophy finalist in this series and will need to play like one. Letang has showed signs of frustration throughout the playoffs, and it will be crucial for him to be at the top of his game this series, especially with the loss of Trevor Daley to a broken ankle. Letang already averages 28:47 of time on ice, but expect that number to increase by even more this series.
How they win: The Penguins’ offense is more than just Crosby and Evgeni Malkin this year. Kessel has been on a tear this postseason and complimentary players like Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin have added excellent depth, which will be challenging to match up with. The Sharks don’t have that depth luxury, so if the Penguins’ top defensive pairing can keep Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, and Joe Thornton (combined 62 points) at bay, then that will certainly make things easier. Finally, if rookie 21-year-old goaltender Matt Murray (2.21 GAA, .924 save percentage) can mentally stay focused without seeing backup Marc-Andre Fleury in his rear view mirror, and play how he has played to get the Penguins here, then the Penguins will be just fine.
If they win who wins the Conn Smythe Trophy: I’ve ran through the list in my head and, as much as I want to say Sidney Crosby or Matt Murray will win the Conn Smythe (they still might if they have a really good series), based on the playoffs so far, it is going to be Phil Kessel.
Who will win: These teams are incredibly similar on paper; both have young goaltenders, a Norris Trophy finalist, and exceptionally high-powered offenses. The biggest advantage in a series is goaltending and that belongs to the Penguins this go-around, although I don’t think that will matter as much unless one of them gets insanely hot. Also, expect most games to be high scoring and very evenly-matched. This will truly be an epic Stanley Cup Final and all signs point to it finally being the Sharks year, and it might truly be that, but the Penguins will end the Western Conference’s four-year dominance by hoisting the cup for the first time in seven years.
Number of games: 7 (the home team wins every game)