If Sidney Crosby is right, the Stanley Cup Final that gets underway Monday between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the San Jose Sharks could be something special.
“This is going to be probably some of the fastest hockey that any of us have ever played,” he said.
Crosby's not just selling the company line. The NHL has carefully crafted its rules to promote both speed and scoring. Both the Sharks and Penguins thrive when the the game is played at a high tempo. Not coincidentally, they're also the two highest-scoring teams in the postseason.
Still, it's a surprise that these two are meeting with the Cup on the line.
That Pittsburgh made it this far is a small miracle. They were a disaster in the first half of the season. Hobbled by a 28th-ranked offense, they got off to a 15-10-3 start that cost coach Mike Johnston his job. They only found their mojo after Mike Sullivan took over behind the bench and turned his star-studded lineup loose. The Pens finished with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, then tore through the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals before going the distance with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the conference final. Led by Crosby, arguably the most recognizable name in the game, they're deeper than they've been since last winning the Cup in 2009.
The Sharks are deep, too. Still, few saw this coming. A team two years removed from a stunning reverse-sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings, and just one year beyond a playoff DNQ, they've always been a postseason pushover. A sum less than the total of its parts. A team real contenders shoved aside on the way to their destiny.
But this time around, the pieces finally came together. They put together a torrid second half of heir own after finally figuring out how new coach Pete DeBoer wanted them to play, then knocked off the Kings, the Predators and the Blues in convincing fashion.
The trade to acquire goaltender Martin Jones from the Boston Bruins was key to their turnaround. The 26-year-old lent them a stability that had been missing between the pipes. Free agent additions Joel Ward and Paul Martin lent critical depth to the forward and defense corps, respectively.
But they might have sentiment on their side as well.
Patrick Marleau has played nearly 1,600 games in teal since being the second player selected at the 1997 draft. Joe Thornton, the player taken before Marleau, has 1,500 games under his belt and has been with the Sharks for the past 11 seasons. Neither has appeared in a Final game before this.
Thornton said at Sunday's media day that it was worth the wait.
“It would have been nice [to get to a Final] when I was younger, but you definitely appreciate this,” he said. “You realize how hard you have to work to get to this point.”
Hard or not, those three rounds were dress rehearsal for the real thing. Here's how the two sides match up for their final showdown.
Game 1: Mon. 5/30, 8 p.m. ET @ Pittsburgh | NBC, CBC, TVA Sports
Game 2: Wed. 6/1, 8 p.m. ET @ Pittsburgh | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
Game 3: Sat. 6/4, 8 p.m. @ San Jose | NBC if tied, CBC, TVA Sports
Game 4: Mon. 6/6, 8 p.m. ET @ San Jose | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
*Game 5: Thu. 6/9, 8 p.m. ET San Jose @ Pittsburgh | NBC, CBC, TVA Sports
*Game 6: Sun. 6/12, 8 p.m. ET Pittsburgh @ San Jose | NBC, CBC, TVA Sports
*Game 7: Wed. 6/15, 8 p.m. ET San Jose @ Pittsburgh | NBC, CBC, TVA Sports
2015-16 Head-to-head results
Nov. 21: Sharks 3, Penguins 1
Dec. 1: Penguins 5, Sharks 1
Penguins: D Trevor Daley (ankle, IR); F Scott Wilson (lower body, IR); Kevin Porter (ankle, IR)
Sharks: F Matt Nieto (upper body, day-to-day); D Matt Tennyson (upper body, day-to-day)
Penguins: The Sharks have faced depth in these playoffs, but nothing quite like what the Pens bring. Sidney Crosby (6-9-15) and Evgeni Malkin (4-11-15) are game-breakers who demand constant attention. Their linemates may change, affecting the speed and style of their attack, but that only makes them more challenging to defend. It also opens up the ice for the HBK Line, which has become the most dangerous trio in the East. Phil Kessel has thrived playing in more sheltered minutes and leads the Penguins attack with nine goals and 18 points. Center Nick Bonino has a team-high 12 assists in 18 games, and Carl Hagelin has been lethal in transition (5-7-12). Their speed makes them a nightmare matchup and will force the Sharks to rely even more heavily on their top-four defenseman. Over the course of the series, that could swing things in Pittsburgh's favor. With all that talent up front, it's easy to overlook the fourth line. That'd be a mistake. They'll get good mileage out of Matt Cullen, Eric Fehr and Tom Kuhnhackl, who bring a nice mix of speed and grit.
Sharks: San Jose enters the final boasting the league's top offense (3.50 goals per game). Impressive enough, but more so when you consider it lit up two of the NHL's top-four regular season defenses (Los Angeles and St. Louis) in the process. Facing a Penguins blueline that's nowhere near as formidable, especially after losing key member Trevor Daley in the Eastern Conference finals, the Sharks could run wild. Logan Couture and Joe Thornton are the top two playmakers of the postseason, with 16 and 15 assists, respectively, and Couture leads all scorers with 24 points. But it's Joe Pavelski who stirs the drink. The captain is doing it all for the Sharks, chipping in a league-high 13 goals and four game winners while playing an exemplary brand of two-way hockey. Tomas Hertl (5-5-10) has been solid, but needs to put his big frame to better use in the Final.
Joonas Donskoi has impressed with his speed and persistence around the puck. The results aren't always there, but there is no questioning the effort. He could be a breakthrough player in this series. San Jose's third line is warming up at the right time. Joel Ward has four goals in his past two games, highlighting his rep for delivering in the clutch. Center Chris Tierney had just seven goals in the regular season, but already has five in the playoffs. Their ability to provide secondary offense will be key to San Jose's chances.
EDGE: a wash
Penguins: Here's where this team is vulnerable. The Pens simply don't have the depth that the Sharks do. And while they're aggressive on the puck in the neutral zone, they're vulnerable to movement in their own end. Kris Letang was one of the year's top defensemen during the regular season, but his game has slipped coming into the final. Letang is averaging 28:46 of ice time in the playoffs and has two goals and eight assists in 17 games, but just two of those points came in the Eastern Conference Finals. The loss of Daley midway through the ECF has made it easier to key on slowing Letang down. He'll have to be more productive for the Pens to take this series. Brian Dumoulin has stepped up nicely in his own zone, but has just two career goals. Ben Lovejoy is a decent stay-at-home defender as well. Beyond them though, it gets shaky. Ian Cole, Olli Maatta and Justin Schultz are borderline third-pair types who get crushed in possession time. The Pens are vulnerable whenever they're on the ice
Sharks: San Jose is allowing just 27.1 shots per game, second fewest of any team this spring. That's a testament to its team commitment, particularly in the neutral zone. The Blues noted how effectively San Jose closed off their attempts to enter the zone on the rush—exactly the way the Pens like to generate offense. Without time and space, St. Louis wound up turning pucks over before getting them to the net. That's a real concern for Pittsburgh.
The D corps is led by Brent Burns, the Norris Trophy finalist who brings a skill set unlike anyone else in the game today. He's their go-to guy in all situations, averaging better than 25 minutes a night, and he enters the final as San Jose's third leading scorer (6-14-20). When he's rolling, the Sharks are unstoppable. Marc-Edouard Vlasic has answered all questions about his World Cup berth, emerging as the game's premier shutdown defenseman. It's a treat to watch him at work in his own end. Former Penguin Paul Martin and Justin Braun play less noticeable games, but are no less effective. Both do their best work in their own zone, but are capable of moving the puck in transition. Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak bring a physical edge to San Jose's back end, but both bleed out possession time. If they get caught in their own end, they might be there for awhile.
Penguins: The biggest surprise of Pittsburgh's run to the Final has been the steady play of Matt Murray, who played just 13 games during the regular season and was a full-time AHLer until the beginning of March. He hasn't had to steal a game yet, but he's impressed with his poise when the defense has broken down around him. He's gone 11-4 in the postseason with a 2.21 GAA and .924 save percentage,
Sharks: Was there a bigger off-season acquisition than Martin Jones? He's been a prayer answered for a team that desperately needed an upgrade between the pipes. Jones has played all but 29 minutes of San Jose's run, going 12-6 with a 2.12 GAA, a .919 save percentage and three shutouts. He blanked the Blues in back-to-back games in the conference finals, running up a scoreless streak of 156 minutes along the way. Like Murray, he's been steady rather than spectacular. Neither is likely to blink under the spotlight, but if one of them is going to raise his game, bet on the slightly more experienced Jones.
EDGE: a wash
Penguins: Vastly improved under coach Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh's power play is clicking at 23.4% in the playoffs. Their first unit offers a variety of looks with Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and Letang all ready and willing to shoot.
Pittsburgh's penalty kill has a success rate of 83.6% in the playoffs, fifth in the NHL, and could be vulnerable. Daley was on their first PK unit, and will be sorely missed. Cole and Lovejoy will have to hold the line.
Sharks: San Jose boasts the best power play of any team that lasted at least two rounds, converting at a rate of 27%. It was a key factor in each of the first three rounds, shredding the PKs of Los Angeles, Nashville and St. Louis. Thornton-to-Pavelski has been a deadly combo, but Couture, Burns and Patrick Marleau are nearly as dangerous. Each has the ability to pick apart a defense with precision passing.
San Jose's penalty kill has a success rate of 80.4% this postseason, seventh in the NHL. That's a ray of light for Penguins fans, tempered slightly by the ability of the Sharks to stay out of the box. San Jose is average just 8:03 of penalty time per game, second fewest in the league.
The Penguins have had a terrific run, but it ends here. The Sharks have torn apart three elite defenses, generating 54 more scoring chances at five-on-five than they've allowed, according to War On Ice. Meanwhile, the Penguins are just +22, and that's with them coming off a series in which they outshot the Lightning by an average of 13 per game. They're not just the more dangerous team, they're also the better checkers. And they have a chance to win one for Jumbo Joe. They'll get it done. Sharks in six.