The San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins are just one day away from competing in the Stanley Cup Final for the ultimate prize — Lord Stanley. However, the championship journey is not going to be easy.
If you’ve been following hockey long enough, you’ll realize that the impending games will boil down to five specific factors because both teams have their strengths and weaknesses.
Here are five things to know about the Sharks-Penguins Stanley Cup Final matchup.
Brent Burns continues to lead all NHL defenseman with 20 points, placing him third overall with playoff scoring, but it’s the defensive play of the Sharks against the opposing team’s best players that has keyed their run.
Marc Edouard-Vlasic leads all NHL defenseman with a plus-13 rating, while Burns’ partner Paul Martin is second with a plus-10.
The third pair of Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak has also played well enough. Both are averaging more than 15 minutes a night.
Kris Letang is the main man on the Penguins’ blue line, averaging nearly 29 minutes a game while contributing 10 points (2g, 8a) in 17 games.
However, there are some concerns for Pittsburgh, as defenseman Trevor Daley remains out with a broken ankle. Olli Maatta returned in place of Daley midway through the Lightning series and played well after struggling early in the postseason.
The Sharks offense should get plenty of chances against the Penguins’ defense throughout the series.
Can the Penguins handle the Sharks’ attack?
Joe Pavelski leads the league with 13 goals and four game-winners, and trails Logan Couture (24 points) in scoring with 22 points. Joe Thornton has 18 points. The Sharks have also received contributions from other players — six goals from Joel Ward, and five each from Tomas Hertl, Chris Tierney and Joonas Donskoi.
Sharks coach Peter DeBoer took a risk and kept Patrick Marleau on the second line for the entire Blues series, but San Jose’s bottom six forwards showed that they were able to match up just fine against an arguably deeper St. Louis group.
Phil Kessel leads the Penguins with nine goals and 18 points, while centers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bonino have 15 points apiece.
Just like the Sharks, Pittsburgh has received contributions by remaking its offense in the second half of the year. Forwards Bryan Rust, Carl Hagelin, Conor Sheary and Tom Kuhnhackl have all been key playoff contributors.
The Kessel-Bonino-Hagelin line has been outstanding.
The Sharks matched the depth of St. Louis in the Western Conference Final, but the Penguins are a more skilled team than the Blues. Chris Tierney continues to improve as a third line center, but Pittsburgh could take advantage of that matchup with one of its top three lines, all of which have been dangerous in the playoffs.
In his first career playoff run as a starting goalie, Martin Jones is 12-6 with a 2.12 goals-against average and .919 save percentage. He has shown an ability to quickly bounce back from losses, keying the Sharks’ 5-1 record in such situations, and has only got pulled once after starting all 18 playoff games.
Rookie goalie Matt Murray has played in 15 of the Penguins’ 18 games with a 2.21 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. He took over in Game 3 of the first round and has been in net ever since, except for Game 5 against the Lightning when Marc-Andre Fleury started and struggled.
The numbers for both goalies are almost the same, but Jones could make some improvements because he has a .902 save percentage on the road as opposed to .936 at home.
According to Sharks insider Kevin Kurz, forward Matt Nieto said on Friday he “absolutely” expects to be able to play in the Stanley Cup Final. However, it’s uncertain whether DeBoer would include him in Game 1.
Daley was important to the Penguins’ blue line, averaging 22:08 of ice time in the playoffs before he broke his ankle. He’s arguably their best puck-moving defender.
The Sharks have had an extra day of rest headed into Game 1, but they also had to fly across the country, so that may not be an advantage. Nieto’s pending availability gives San Jose a full complement of players, while Daley’s absence could really end up hurting the Penguins’ blue line.
5. Special Teams
The Sharks carry a 27.0 percent success rate on the power play into the series, after having the third-ranked unit in the regular season (22.6 percent). Couture leads the league with 11 power play points, while Pavelski has five power play goals. San Jose’s penalty kill is at 80.4 percent in the playoffs.
The Pens have also displayed a strong power play, checking in at 23.4 percent. Crosby has nine power play points, while Kessel has five power play goals. Their penalty kill is slightly better (83.6 percent).
The Sharks have the better power play, but the Pens’ penalty kill was stronger.
Prediction: Sharks in 6