After a long regular season and three rounds of playoffs, we’ve finally reached hockey’s greatest spectacle: the Stanley Cup Final. Eastern Conference champions the Pittsburgh Penguins host Western Conference champs the San Jose Sharks in Game 1 tonight.
The San Jose Sharks have been a successful franchise for most of their 25 years of existence. But the team has never made it to hockey’s greatest spectacle, the Stanley Cup Final. Now, after a brutally long wait, the Sharks are finally four wins away from the Cup. Awaiting them on the other side is the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that knows full well about what it takes to win the Stanley Cup.
The two squads met twice during the regular season, and each claimed a win. The Sharks won the first game, 3-1, in Pittsburgh, while the Penguins won the second, 5-1 at the SAP Center in San Jose. At the end of the season, the Penguins entered the playoffs as the league’s hottest team, winning 14 of its last 16 games, and boasting the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. The Sharks, meanwhile, were near the bottom of the playoff pack as the West’s six seed.
But San Jose has turned on the jets in the postseason. In the first round, the Sharks defeated the Los Angeles Kings, the conference favorite, in five games. In round two, San Jose defeated the Nashville Predators in seven games. In the conference Finals, the Sharks outlasted the top seed in the West, the St. Louis Blues, in six games to reach the Final. In the East, Pittsburgh defeated the New York Rangers in five games in round 1, then in the second round the Penguins ousted the President’s Cup Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in six games. In the conference Finals, they defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games to advance to the finals for the first time since 2009.
Keys to Victory: San Jose
The Sharks’ surprising run to the Stanley Cup Final has been steered by the club’s core of veterans. Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, and Patrick Marleau have combined for 52 points this postseason. All three will be making their first appearance in the final round. The Sharks’ stingy defense has been led by Brent Burns, who has 20 points in these playoffs. San Jose has gotten increased production from defenseman Marc Edouard-Vlasic, who has 11 points and a team-leading 13 plus-minus rating. San Jose is a physical squad that can wear you down very easily. Goaltender Martin Jones has evolved into a playoff star for the Sharks. The netminder is 12-6 this postseason, with a 2.12 GAA and a .919 save percentage. Jones has also had three shutouts, including in Game 7 of the second round against Nashville. But what’s truly gotten San Jose to this point is its balanced attack. The Sharks can win in a high-scoring affair as easily as a close, physical game. San Jose has relied on that attack throughout the postseason, and it is why it has reached this point.
Keys to Victory: Pittsburgh
The Pittsburgh Penguins have made it to this final round because of its offense. The team had the best offense during the regular season, and it hasn’t slowed down during the playoffs. Leading the way has been right winger Phil Kessel, who has a team-leading 18 points. The club has also gotten production from its two star centers, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combining for 30 points. Pittsburgh has also received unexpected production from rookie Bryan Rust, who has eight points this postseason including two goals in the Pens’ Game 7 win over the Lightning. Pittsburgh also has one of the most balanced attacks of any postseason team. The Penguins have three lines stocked with firepower that can make a team pay for loading up against any one player or line. But the big question mark for Pittsburgh is goaltending. Matt Murray only played in 13 regular season games, but has been in net for practically all of the playoffs. (Star netminder Marc-Andre Fleury was out with a concussion at the start of the playoffs.) Murray has been stellar, going 11-4 during the postseason, with a 2.22 GAA and .924 save percentage. But this is the finals, and how he responds will be huge for Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh definitely has the edge on offense and it has more playoff experience. San Jose has the advantage on defense and has a leg up in terms of goaltending. These two couldn’t be more evenly matched. But San Jose seems to have a little more momentum coming into this series, which gives it the slight edge.
The Sharks will win this series in seven games and bring the Stanley Cup to the Bay Area.
Photos: Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images (faceoff), Rocky W. Widner/NHL/Getty Images (Pavelski and Thorton), Gene J. Puskar (Crosby and Malkin)