The Stanley Cup final begins Monday night in Pittsburgh and the individual talent level on display is going to be off-the-charts good. Both teams boast a number of elite level players and seeing them on hockey’s biggest stage will be a real treat. There’s a few very intriguing matchups on paper that could very well dictate how this final plays out. With that in mind, we wanted to highlight a few of those key matchups to look out for. We’ve been doing this throughout the playoffs for each series, but considering it’s the Cup, we figured why not expand that for the final round. Here are four matchups that could end up being the deciding factor for the series.
SIDNEY CROSBY vs. JOE THORNTON This is the big one as both Sidney Crosby and Joe Thornton had MVP-caliber seasons, and monstrous second-halves that carried over into the playoffs. If either player falters, the other will create a huge advantage for their team which is why it’s vital for each player to keep the other in check. The two kept things very even in their limited head-to-head minutes through the last five years and there’s no reason to expect otherwise considering their almost-equal scoring and offensive possession impacts. Where one player has a distinct advantage though is on defense as Thornton has been much more proficient at limiting shot attempts over the past few seasons. In Crosby’s defense, his poor defensive shot rates this season were a departure from his usual steady play, but Jumbo Joe has still always been the better defensive player. Thornton’s ability to limit shots against could make life very difficult for Crosby at 5-on-5.
KRIS LETANG vs. BRENT BURNS Even with two MVP-caliber centres on the roster, it’s possible that the most important pieces for these two teams are on defence. Kris Letang and Brent Burns log huge minutes and are absolutely vital to the transition game both teams strive for. They finished second and third for points among D-men this season bringing huge offenSe from the backend. Burns has been a slightly more prolific offensive threat, getting more goals, assists, and shot attempts per 60 minutes than Letang, but it comes at the cost of defence. Letang has the edge there being just barely below average while Burns allows almost four extra shot attempts on the ice compared to off. Both players have had the ‘risky’ label bestowed upon them, but while that’s true, the important thing to remember is that it’s almost always worth the reward. Their strong offenSe trumps any glaring weaknesses on the backend. There may be the occasional gaffe or giveaway, but make no mistake, Letang and Burns are two of the biggest reasons both teams have made it this far and you’ll see that on full display this series.
PHIL KESSEL vs. JOE PAVELSKI Back at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, Phil Kessel and Joe Pavelski played on a line together along with James van Riemsdyk and were arguably the best line there. That magic (foolishly) won’t be rekindled at this year’s World Cup as Kessel was left off the team, but we may see a different kind of magic when these two face off. They’ve been among the game’s best scorers over the past few years and have shown that in these playoffs scoring big goal after big goal. Pavelski leads the league in playoff goals with 13, while Kessel is third at nine and the two have opened as Conn Smythe co-favorites at Bodog. The two have similar production rates, but Pavelski scores more often and has better shot rate stats across the board. They likely won’t see much of each other since Kessel plays on the ‘third line’ and Pavelski will face Crosby’s line, but we will still likely see them side by side on the scoresheet trading more big goals for their teams. When each team has needed it this post-season, the two American studs delivered clutch performances. Here’s hoping both of them have a some more heroics left.
EVGENI MALKIN vs. LOGAN COUTURE The last matchup is perhaps the most important one as it’s the one where there’s a big edge. The other three were really close calls, but that’s not the case here. Logan Couture is a great player, but Evgeni Malkin is a top 10 center, maybe even top five, and it’s downright unfair for any other team that he’s anchoring a second line. That makes for a very tough matchup for the Sharks second line. Malkin was the more superior player in every statistical category listed here this season and he’s had the edge when they’ve gone head-to-head in the past, which is something that couldn’t be said about the Penguins in the other three matchups. While the other three big faceoffs might just cancel out, the second line center advantage might be too great for the Penguins. Couture is going to have to step up in a big way.