Stanley Cup Preview Game One: Pittsburgh vs. San Jose

Screenshot_1Tonight the series for one of the oldest and most coveted trophies begins, the battle for the Stanley Cup! The Pittsburgh Penguins (48-26-8, 104 points) the champions from the East will face off with the San Jose Sharks (46-30-6, 98 points), the reigning champs from the West. NHL fans are excited because these two teams are very similar and matched up well in speed, size and demeanor.

If Pens captain, Sidney Crosby is right about this series, then this Stanley Cup Final could be something special. “This is going to be probably some of the fastest hockey that any of us have ever played, when you look at the two teams and how they match up and how they want to play,” he said.

Crosby’s is not exaggerating. In the recent past, the NHL has carefully designed their rulebook to promote both speed and scoring. Both the Sharks and Penguins have thrived in those conditions, especially when the the game is played at a high tempo. It’s not a coincidence that both teams are also the two highest-scoring teams in the postseason. But even still, many sportscasters and fans alike are surprised that it’s these two teams that are meeting with the Cup up for grabs.

If you look closely, it’s basically a small miracle that Pittsburgh made it this far. They were a disaster in the first half of the season. They had a league 28th-ranked offense, they got off to a very bad start of 15-10-3 which many say cost ex-coach Mike Johnston his job with the team. It’s after another Mike came in, Mike Sullivan, who took over behind the bench mid-season that the star-studded lineup was able to find their mojo and let loose, win and score.

At the end of the long tumultuous season, the Pens finished with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. They tore through the New York Rangers and surpisingly the President trophy winners, the Washington Capitals, before taking down the high powered Tampa Bay Lightning in the conference final. As always, led by Crosby, the face of the league, they’re looking deeper and more skilled than they’ve been since last winning the Cup in 2009.

Put don’t be fooled, the Sharks are very deep, too and know how to swim not only under but on the ice. But despite their talents, few in the media saw this coming either. They have had their own drama on and off the ice, with Joe Pavelski telling GM Doug Wilson publically to ‘shut up’ and asking for a trade. Teammate Patrick Marleau also asked to be traded, and a mere season later this team has gelled into a solid Stanley Cup contender.

It’s also a team who are two years removed from the memorable and stunning reverse-sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings (who went on to win the cup that year), and they are just one year beyond a playoff where they did not quality. It’s a hard image to change of always being a postseason pushover. But something changed or mysteriously clicked. A team of real contenders emerged from the dark and shoved aside all controversies on the way to attain their destiny. The Sharks exorcised some ghosts by defeating the Kings in five games, then they put the Nashville Predators to rest in seven, and finally quieted the St. Louis Blues in six.

The series head to head during the season is 1-1 and so doesn’t tell much. Most doubt when they faced up during the regular season that they knew that would be the team they would have to fight to win the cup. But looking at each other it could have been like looking in the mirror. Their stats are so similar. Their power play: Penguins 23.4%, and Sharks 27%. On the penalty kill: Penguins 83.6%, Sharks are 80.4% They have similar style explosive leading scorers: the Penguins have Phil Kessel 9-9—18; and the Sharks have Logan Couture 8-16—24. In the playoffs they have a very similar goals for/against rating: the Penguins have 58/43, the Sharks, 63/41.

Penguins Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino are key players who helped lift the Pens past the Lightning. Their rookie goalie Matt Murray (2.22 goals-against average, .924 save percentage) has shown remarkable poise and concentration, and has looked unbeatable. They’ll miss defenseman Trevor Daley who has a broken ankle, but they do have enough reinforcements from their farm team, similar to the Sharks.

Sharks have the likes of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau but many experts say since they have never reached the Stanley Cup Final. But now the two are very seasoned and are honed in for the kill: After 1,411 regular-season games and 165 playoff games for Marleau, all played with the Sharks, and 1,367 regular-season games and 150 playoff contests for Thornton, there is no “but” when their names comeup. Sharks defenseman Brent Burns who has six goals, and 20 points in the postseason can roam around the ice because Paul Martin can support him. They’ve got speed, size, energy from winger Joel Ward who has six goals, and 11 points, and they have solid goaltending from the former LA Kings backup netminder Martin Jones who has a 2.12 GAA, .919 percent save average.

We think these Sharks aren’t the mentally fragile team who squandered away a 3-0 series lead over the Kings in 2014 and missed the playoffs last season. “I feel we have a pretty fast team, a deep team,” Burns said. “We’re pretty confident in our group and looking forward to getting it going.” We think that the animal this team is, is finally now appropriately named. Chomp-chomp!

Pick: Game one, Sharks over Pens, 4-2