The San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins haven't seen much of each other over the years, but the 2016 Stanley Cup finalists usually make for some entertaining hockey.
Two years ago, Patrick Marleau scored this amazing short-handed goal against the Penguins and earlier this season he notched his 1,000th career point in Pittsburgh during a franchise record 6-0 road trip.
Marleau and teammate Joe Thornton were both drafted in Pittsburgh back in 1997. Thornton went 1st overall to Boston while the Sharks took Marleau with the very next pick. As teammates now, wouldn't it be something for them to clinch their first Stanley Cup in the city where it all began 19 years ago? That said, winning on home ice would obviously be nice too.
However this series turns out, hockey fans should be treated to one helluva series. Both teams have crushed their opponents in terms of possession in these playoffs. The Western final went six games and the Eastern final seven games, but the Sharks and Penguins were by far the better teams in the conference finals.
How do the Sharks and Penguins matchup you ask? Lets take a look.
With the Penguins featuring arguably two of the top-10 centers in the world in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, it might come to a surprise to many that the Sharks actually have the advantage in terms of top-six forwards.
The Sharks' top-two lines have been significantly more effective in these playoffs. Crosby and Malkin each have 15 points in these playoffs, but Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski have 24 and 22 points respectively in the same amount of games.
Not to mention, the other four members of San Jose's top-six, Tomas Hertl, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joonas Donskoi have combined for 49 points. Pittsburgh's remaining top-six forwards, Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Kris Kunitz have combined for just 34 points.
(Joonas Donskoi image by Zeke Mo)
It will be interesting to see how these lines matchup to open this series. In Pittsburgh, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan will have last change and my best guess is that he will want to use Crosby in a shut-down role against Thornton and Pavelski. That would leave Malkin to go up against Couture.
Conversely, when Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer has last change in San Jose, I fully expect he will want the opposite matchup where Couture is used against Crosby and Thornton goes up against Malkin.
Regardless of the matchups, if the Sharks are to win this series, they will need to win the top-six battle because on paper the Penguins have a much stronger bottom-six.
HBK vs Tierney & Ward
This third line matchup looks to heavily favor the Penguins as their third unit is led by superstar Phil Kessel. It took the Penguins awhile to figure it out, but Kessel is far better playing apart from Crosby and Malkin because he is the type of winger that likes to have the puck on his stick.
Kessel is more known for scoring off the rush with his patented wrist shot than he is known for any other type of goal. With a low flex, he is one of the worst goal-scorers when it comes to one-timers. Kessel's stick is simply too whippy for a good one-timer.
Playing with a fellow speedy winger in midseason trade acquistion Carl Hagelin has been a perfect fit for Kessel. Nick Bonino as the center completes arguably the best line in these playoffs. No doubt they benefit from easier matchups than Crosby and Malkin, but this trio has been on fire. Hagelin and Bonino are solid contributors and as role players they are better complements to the way Kessel likes to play with the puck.
This trio is going to be a handful for San Jose's third line and third defense pair to handle. The past few games San Jose has been rolling out a third line of Melker Karlsson, Chris Tierney and Joel Ward. While they have had good games lately, they have been the weakest of the Sharks' top-three lines and speed isn't one of their assets. None of them are above average speed wise and therefore, DeBoer may be wise to insert Matt Nieto into this line.
San Jose's speedy winger missed all of the conference final after being injured late in the Nashville series. Nieto is expected to be available according to the San Jose Mercury News.
Nieto's presence ought to give that line a boost in this matchup, but it will still be a tall task. They will likely be playing alongside a third pair in Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak whom are both miserable at moving the puck. DeBoer might consider dropping Marleau back down to the third line with Nieto to try and combat the HBK line with two speedy wingers. Ward is the least fleet of foot forward currently on the third line and it would be an easy switch to bump him back up to the second line where he has played much of these playoffs next to Couture and Donskoi.
The Sharks have been rolling a strong fourth line lately with veteran wingers Tommy Wingels and Dainius Zubrus alongside center Nick Spaling. These three have played well since they were first put together in Game 7 against Nashville.
Pittsburgh counters with a line of youngster Tom Kuhnhackl and veterans Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr. This Penguins fourth unit has out-scored the Sharks fourth line about 2-1 through these playoffs. The advantage between these two certainly lies with Pittsburgh but the Sharks' fourth line plays a strong, heavy game. These groups play far different styles, the Sharks could win this matchup if they can slow the game down and get the cycle going. On paper though, the edge goes to Pittsburgh.
This is where the Sharks have a big advantage. Even if the Penguins were fully healthy, the Sharks have a far better top-four defense. Brent Burns is a Norris Trophy finalist on one pair, and one could argue Marc-Edouard Vlasic should have been a Norris finalist in his own right on the other pair.
One could make the case the Sharks employ both the most dynamic offensive defenseman in the league and the best shut-down defenseman. Their defense partners are no slouches either.
Burns' partner Paul Martin has played in past Olympics for Team USA and is still considered an elite shut-down defenseman. Penguins fans know just how solid he can be as Martin spent the past five years with Pittsburgh before signing this offseason with San Jose. Vlasic's partner Justin Braun is also an American born defenseman and one who deserves consideration to play for Team USA in international tournaments. He is that strong of a two-way defenseman. He doesn't get any time on the power play in San Jose, but he very well could be a second-unit quarterback.
As for Pittsburgh, Kris Letang is great and Olli Maatta is a really promising young player. Letang is one of the top-10 puck movers in the entire NHL and Maatta plays a solid two-way game. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh fans these two aren't playing to the level of Burns and Vlasic.
Pittsburgh's Brian Doumulin and Ben Lovejoy round out their top-four and while they are decent players, they don't compare to the likes of Martin and Braun.
As mentioned above, San Jose's third pair is a miserable combination. Dillon and Polak fit each other well in only one area. Dillon is left-handed and Polak is right-handed which is ideal. However, they never have the puck enough in the offensive zone to benefit. Both are stay-at-home type defenseman that struggle to break out of their own zone. Neither has the confidence to make plays with the puck to spring the rush up the ice.
Pittsburgh's third pair with Ian Cole and Justin Schultz makes much more sense on paper as Schultz is an offensive-minded defenseman with a right shot and Cole is a stay-at-home left-handed defenseman. Slight edge goes to Pittsburgh here, nowhere near enough to balance out San Jose's top-4 advantage though. Overall, San Jose's blue line is much better.
Both teams have two No. 1 goaltenders between Martin Jones, James Reimer, Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury. Jones and Murray have backboned these teams throughout the playoffs. Anyone who says either team has an advantage in net is talking out of their rear ends. Jones and Murray are both solid and doing this for the first time.
Jones has more experience but the Sharks netminder is a first-year starter. Murray is a baby-faced rookie, but so far has a slight save percentage advantage over Jones. Murray currently sports a .924 while Jones comes into the final at .919
The Sharks and Penguins both boast elite power-play units. San Jose finished the regular season third in the league at 22.6% while the Penguins finished a disappointing 16th at 18.4%. Pittsburgh's penalty kill was better though at 84.4% compared to San Jose's 80.4%.
These playoffs are similar numbers for both teams. Both power plays are much better than they were in the regular season and the penalty kills have stayed relatively level. San Jose's postseason power play has been 3.6% better than that of the Penguins. On the flip side, Pittsburgh's penalty kill sits 3.2% higher than the Sharks.
Essentially, these special teams are a wash. Both penalty kills are respectable, with Pittsburgh having a small, but clear advantage. As for the power plays, the Penguins feature lots of firepower in their own right, but the Sharks' top unit features five elite players that have played together for a long, long time.
Stanley Cup Winner is...
The Sharks will win their first ever Stanley Cup in seven games. Pittsburgh's offense will continue to be carried by the HBK line, but San Jose's top-six forwards and top-four defense will be better than their Penguins counterparts. Joel Ward will end up scoring in overtime of Game 7 to silence the Pittsburgh crowd.