SAN JOSE SHARKS vs. PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
CONFERENCE FINALS: Sharks beat St. Louis Blues in 6. Penguins beat Tampa Bay Lightning in 7.
SEASON SERIES: Tied 1-1.
STORY LINE: The Sharks finally made the Stanley Cup in their 24th season after years of playoff disappointments. San Jose has one of its deepest teams ever with four lines capable of producing and two top defensive pairs in front of first-year starting goalie Martin Jones. But the team is still led by its stars with the top line of Joe Thornton, captain Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl dominating through the playoffs. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun have been a shut-down defensive pair this postseason, neutralizing top scorers like St. Louis' Vladimir Tarasenko in the conference final. Brent Burns helps lead a power-play unit that has 17 goals so far this postseason. The Penguins are back in the final for the first time since 2009 thanks in large part to general manager Jim Rutherford's roster overhaul that rebuilt the team around stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. Pittsburgh's rise through the Eastern Conference coincided with the hiring of coach Mike Sullivan in mid-December and Crosby's re-emergence as one of the league's most dangerous players. Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin - dubbed the ''HBK'' line - have given the Penguins the kind of depth they lacked in years past, combining for 17 goals and 28 assists through the first three rounds of the postseason. Vilified at times for the team's struggles during his days in Toronto, Kessel has been reborn in Pittsburgh. His nine postseason goals lead the team and his first appearance in a Cup final has mitigated the sting of being left off the Team USA roster for the World Championships this fall.
SAN JOSE'S KEY PLAYER: Thornton. The No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 draft has been one of the NHL's top players for the better part of two decades. But postseason success and the accolades that come with it have always eluded him up until this season. Thornton is playing the best two-way hockey of his career, adding strong defensive play to his elite passing skills. With the Thornton on the ice, the Sharks have controlled possession all postseason, which is a major reason for San Jose's success.
PITTSBURGH'S KEY PLAYER: Matt Murray. The 22-year-old was supposed to be the goaltender of the future for the Penguins. His tenure started earlier than expected when veteran Marc-Andre Fleury sustained a concussion on March 31. Murray is 11-4 in his first NHL postseason. He also showed plenty of maturity when Fleury was given a spot start in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. When Fleury struggled in a 4-3 overtime loss, Murray returned and was steady in Games 6 and 7 as the Penguins rallied from a 3-2 deficit to beat Tampa Bay.
GAME 1: Monday, 8 p.m.
PREDICTION: Penguins in 7.