Well, it’s that time of year again. After months of grueling playoff action, it’s time for the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, pitting the San Jose Sharks against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It’s been a long time coming for San Jose players and fans alike. This will be the first time in franchise history that the Sharks will play in a Stanley Cup Final.
It will be a thrilling time for the Sharks, particularly veteran forwards Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton. Marleau has been in San Jose since he was the second player selected at the 1997 NHL Draft; he has played 1,411 regular-season games with the Sharks and another 165 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Thornton arrived in 2005 in a trade with the Boston Bruins. Sharks defenseman Brent Burns has emerged as one of the better defensemen in the NHL and was recognized last month when he was named a Norris Trophy finalist. Burns had 75 points (27 goals, 48 assists) in the regular season. So let’s take a look at both teams and talk about how either one of them could be hoisting the greatest trophy in sports.
I hate to say it, but the Pens have a pretty good chance at hoisting the Cup.
The Penguins have been a different team since Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston as coach 28 games into the season. Sullivan has allowed the Penguins to use their speed to their advantage, and top players like centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, right wing Phil Kessel, and defenseman Kris Letang have thrived. Crosby scored 36 goals and had 85 points during the regular season, and he and Malkin each have 15 points in the playoffs. Letang has 10 points and a plus-4 rating.
Matt Murray has supplanted Marc-Andre Fleury as the No. 1 goalie in Pittsburgh after the latter sustained a concussion March 31. Fleury had a chance to grab his job back in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but he allowed four goals on 25 shots in a 4-3 overtime loss. Murray turned 22 on May 25 and has 28 games of experience between the regular season and postseason on his resume, but he has shown the poise of a veteran and his teammates have full confidence in him.
Crosby will always be the first name mentioned when it comes to Pittsburgh’s offense, but the Penguins are loaded up front. The acquisition of Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer has paid dividends; Kessel enters the Final as Pittsburgh’s leading scorer this postseason with 18 points (nine goals, nine assists) in as many games. Monday, he’ll play his first game in the Final.
Kessel is part of what has been dubbed the “HBK Line,” consisting of left wing Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel. Bonino has 12 assists in 18 games, and Hagelin, one of the League’s fastest skaters, has five goals and seven assists.
Bryan Rust is going through the playoffs for the first time, but he sure doesn’t look rattled. Game 7 against Tampa Bay arguably was his best of the postseason; he scored each of Pittsburgh’s goals in a 2-1 win. Rust likely will skate with Malkin and Chris Kunitz, who has 10 points in 18 games.
It’s no secret Pittsburgh’s defense begins with Letang, who is one of the top offensive defensemen in the NHL. Letang is averaging 28:46 of ice time in the playoffs and has two goals and eight assists in 17 games. But he had two points in the Eastern Conference Final, and the Penguins may need more from Letang on the score sheet against the Sharks if they hope to finish this off.
Letang’s main defense partner, Brian Dumoulin, who scored his second goal in 116 career NHL regular-season and playoff games in Game 5 against the Lightning, is steady defensively and plays more than 20 minutes per game.
San Jose Sharks:
Marleau and Thornton will dominate the early storylines in this series, but center Joe Pavelski was born for this time of year. Pavelski has 13 goals in 18 games this postseason, including four game-winners. The first-year captain’s leadership on and off ice undoubtedly is one of the biggest reasons San Jose has gotten over the hump and reached the Final.
Center Logan Couture and Thornton are first and second in the NHL in assists this postseason, with 16 and 15, respectively. Each is extremely creative and a weapon on the power play. Couture’s 24 points lead the NHL.
Right wing Joel Ward is doing everything Sharks general manager Doug Wilson hoped he would when he signed him as a free agent on July 3. Ward has brought grit to San Jose and has 11 points in 18 playoff games. He is very familiar with Pittsburgh going back to his days with the Washington Capitals, so Ward should know what to expect in this series.
Ward’s line is centered by Chris Tierney, a 21-year-old who had seven goals in 79 regular-season games and has five in the playoffs. Swedish left wing Melker Karlsson continues to be a solid third-line left wing who is responsible in each end.
Burns is the star of San Jose’s defense and is capable of getting on the score sheet every time he’s on the ice. He enters the Final as the Sharks’ third leading scorer with 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) and is averaging more than 25 minutes of ice time.
Burns isn’t the only elite player on San Jose’s back end. Marc-Edouard Vlasic has been spectacular this postseason, shutting down the opposition’s top forwards one series after another. Vlasic blanketed the St. Louis Blues’ Vladimir Tarasenko, who had 13 points in his first 14 games this postseason in the Western Conference Final, helping to hold him off the score sheet until Game 6. Vlasic is paired with Justin Braun, who was plus-3 in Game 5 against St. Louis and played 22:23 in the series-clincher.
San Jose’s power play has improved since the regular season, when it was third in the League at 22.5 percent, and is ranked second in the NHL this postseason at 27.0 percent. If the Sharks can keep the puck in the Penguins’ zone and Thornton can continue to find players like Pavelski and Marleau in the slot, their chances of winning the Cup increase dramatically.