Whose Cup is it anyway? It's the Final Four and we have questions

Is it finally Joe Thornton's time to win the Stanley Cup? Or will the St. Louis Blues claim their first-ever NHL title? Who's the playoff MVP? And just how big is Zdeno Chara, anyway?
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We’re down to the final four. An Original Six franchise versus a magical playoff unicorn in the East, and two never-won-a-title teams in the West. Who’s going to raise the Stanley Cup in 2019? That’s a good question. Here are a few more:

What's the Stanley Cup final matchup everybody wants?
We’ll start with an easy one. It’s the San Jose Sharks against the Boston Bruins, featuring 39-year-old Joe Thornton seeking his first Cup against the team that drafted him No. 1 overall in 1997 and then traded him away in 2005 after the Bruins decided they couldn’t win with him. Like Thornton, the Sharks have never won a Cup either, though they finally shed the “playoff choker” label when they advanced to the league championship in 2016, where they lost in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Are there any other “former player versus his old team” storylines?
No. Next question.

Really? There’s none?
OK, yes, there are a few others, but none are nearly as buzzworthy as Jumbo and the B’s. The next-best would be Boston’s David Backes facing off against St. Louis in the final. Backes spent his first 10 NHL seasons with the Blues and was the team’s captain from 2011 to 2016, when he left to sign a five-year, $30-million UFA deal with the Bruins. The farthest that Backes and the Blues ever got was the Western Conference final in 2016, where they lost to Thornton’s Sharks. A Blues-Backes Cup battle would be more impactful if Backes was still the game-changing power forward that he was in St. Louis, but he has slowed down in the past few years while the NHL has sped up, and he has been a healthy scratch at times in the post-season. Otherwise, there’s Boston backup goalie Jaroslav Halak, who spent four seasons in St. Louis from 2010 to 2014, but Halak isn’t going to see the crease unless Bruins starter Tuukka Rask goes down. And right now in the East final, you’ve got Carolina defenseman Dougie Hamilton going up against Boston, the team that drafted him ninth overall and traded him (to the Calgary Flames) in 2015. On the other side, Bruins center Joakim Nordstrom spent the previous three seasons with Carolina. And there you go, you’re all caught up on the latest episode of “This Guy Used To Play For That Team But Now He Plays For This Team.”

What’s up with the Carolina Hurricanes and the playoffs?
They Hurricanes don’t make it to the post-season very often, but when they do they make it count. Prior to this spring, Carolina hadn’t seen the playoffs since 2009 and had only qualified four times since 2002. But they advanced to the Eastern Conference final all four times (2002, 2006, 2009, 2019) and made it to the Cup final twice. Carolina lost to the Detroit Red Wings in 2002, then captured the franchise’s one and only Stanley Cup in 2006, defeating former Hartford Whalers defenseman Chris Pronger and the Edmonton Oilers in seven games.

Will there be a first-time Stanley Cup champion in June?
Neither the Blues nor the Sharks have ever won the Cup, but one of them will get a chance in a few short weeks. Nobody on the Blues’ roster has a Cup ring, and the only Sharks player with one is goalie Martin Jones, who was a backup with Los Angeles in 2014. St. Louis, an original NHL expansion team in 1967-68, made the Cup final in each of its first three years in the league under a playoff format that guaranteed an expansion team in the championship series, losing to Original Six heavyweights Montreal (twice) and Boston. The Blues haven’t been back to the Cup final since – the closest they’ve come has been three appearances in the West final in 1986, 2001 and 2016. San Jose made its NHL debut in 1991-92, its playoff debut in 1994 (winning its first-ever playoff series, a seven-gamer over Detroit) and made it to the Western Conference final for the first time in 2004, then again in 2010, 2011, 2016 and this year. So, who wins? Sharks in seven. Thornton vs. Bruins in the final. Let’s do this.

Are there any interesting Game 7 factoids about the Bruins or Hurricanes?
What an oddly specific question. But now that it’s been brought up, yes, there are a couple things of note. The Bruins have played the most Game 7s in NHL history (27) and they’ve won the most Game 7s in NHL history (15). The Hurricanes have only played eight Game 7s in their franchise history, but they’ve won the last five in a row for an all-time mark of 5-3. Plus, they’ve got Justin Williams, ‘Mr. Game 7’ himself, who has scored seven goals and an NHL-record 15 points in nine career Game 7s.

Who’s the playoff MVP?
If the past has taught us anything, it’s that the Conn Smythe Trophy recipient will be a player on one of the Cup finalist teams, so it’s still too early to tell. But we can handicap the race a bit. If Boston wins the Cup, Rask looks like the frontrunner at the moment, with top-liners Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak also in the mix (and in that order). If it’s San Jose, the leading candidates are scoring centers Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl, followed by 29-minute defenseman Brent Burns. If it’s finally St. Louis’ time to hoist the Cup, the obvious MVP choices are veteran sniper Jaden Schwartz and rookie goalie Jordan Binnington. Carolina’s the toughest to figure out. Is defenseman Jaccob Slavin going to win the Conn Smythe? Petr Mrazek missed most of Round 2, but he’s back and he’ll need to be great for the Canes to win it all. And so will No. 1 center Sebastian Aho. And Jordan Staal and Teuvo Teravainen and Williams and Hamilton and, well, everybody else. Maybe it’ll be a Carolina-Conn-Smythe-by-committee…

How old is Zdeno Chara?
The Bruins captain is 42 years and two months old, give or take a day or two. He was drafted 56th overall in 1996 – a year before Thornton went No. 1 to Boston – and saw his first NHL action with the New York Islanders in 1997. He’s 15 games shy of 1,500 regular-season games, and he’s seesawing with Thornton for most career playoff games among active players (173 and counting). In the first round against Toronto, Chara became the oldest defenseman in NHL history to score a game-winning goal in the playoffs. Only two older forwards have achieved the feat: Boston’s Mark Recchi (43 years, 125 days) in the 2011 Cup final and Anaheim’s Teemu Selanne (42 years, 301 days) in the first round in 2013. Recchi and Selanne are both in the Hall of Fame. One day, Chara will join them.

Follow-up question: how tall is Zdeno Chara?
He’s listed at 6-foot-9, which translates to about 7-foot-2 in skates and a helmet. Way, way at the other end of the NHL tape measure is Nashville’s Rocco Grimaldi, who’s listed at 5-foot-6. Yes, there’s a photo.

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