Regardless what the San Jose Sharks did or could have done differently, the Pittsburgh Penguins were clearly the better team in the Stanley Cup final.
Anyone who tries to argue otherwise is kidding themselves.
However, the degree (or percentage) to which the Penguins were the better team is up for debate. If this series was truly a coin flip, neck-and-neck battle, then we would say it was a 50-50 series. Clearly that wasn't the case.
In terms of victories, the Penguins won four games to the Sharks two, ergo a 66.6% split to 33.3%
That number is a good place to start, but six games is an extremely small sample. Over the course of the series these two teams combined for 738 shot attempts in the six games. Pittsburgh accounted for 394 of those attempts, or 53.4%. That means San Jose attepted 46.6%.
Giving Pittsburgh Credit
By possession standards, the Penguins were clearly the better team. If the Penguins and Sharks faced each other 100 times with those numbers, there is little doubt that Pittsburgh would win the majority. However, there is significantly more doubt about Pittsburgh winning a single best-of-seven series at those possession percentages.
The Penguins certainly deserve credit for being the far better shot-blocking team in this series. Their speed and tenacity at both ends of the ice was quite evident. If we look at the percentage of unblocked shot attempts, the Penguins had an even bigger percentage of the pie. It is tougher to have a shot hit the net or go wide than it is to have a shot blocked, so one can argue this is a better measure than total attempts.
If we take Fenwick (unblocked shot attempts) into consideration, the numbers are closer to 57% Penguins and 43% Sharks. Some may see this and think wow, that's a huge gap and the Penguins should have swept the series. That really isn't the case. When a team wins a best-of-seven series by winning Game 7, they end up winning 57% of the games in the series (four out of seven).
Jones Gave Sharks A Chance
Based on the numbers and the eye test, the Penguins winning in six games make sense. Pittsburgh winning in either six or seven, were the two most logical outcomes given the performances we were witnessing as the series unfolded. That doesn't mean San Jose winning in seven would have been crazy low odds. Hot goaltenders steal series in the Stanley Cup playoffs on a regular basis. The Sharks certainly had a hot goaltender in Martin Jones.
Jones stopped 191 of 205 Penguins shots over the six game series, for a scintillating .932 save percentage. Matt Murray was really good at the other end for Pittsburgh as well with a .920 percentage, but Jones was significantly better. The Sharks had a chance to win this series. Even if it was their goaltender carrying an abormally large portion of the work, the Sharks were in this series.
With Jones channeling his inner Patrick Roy, the Sharks only needed a couple of bounces to go there way to force a Game 7 and perhaps win the Stanley Cup. That is why the lack of adjustments from Head Coach Pete DeBoer is extremely frustrating. DeBoer didn't put his players in the best spots to succeed in this matchup.
Sharks Failed To Appropriately Adjust Lineup
Towards the end of the series, DeBoer responded to a question about changing his lineup by saying the Sharks would dance with the girl they brought to the dance. By continuing to start every game with Patrick Marleau in the top six and playing his third pair of Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak significant minutes, DeBoer stuck to what in his mind was analogous to dancing with the girl brought to the dance.
In this writer's opinion, that analogy wasn't accurate. It would have been accurate had DeBoer shifted Marleau back to third-line center where he spent most of the second half of regular season and the first 8-9 playoff games. It also would have been accurate had DeBoer ridden his top defensemen of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Burns. He did neither.
Before the Stanley Cup final started, it was clear that the Penguins were a scary matchup for the Sharks. Yet somehow, some mainstream media can be found on Twitter saying the Penguins were a better matchup for the Sharks than the Lightning. Pittsburgh was the one team in the playoffs built to beat the Sharks. Pretty unfortunate luck for San Jose to have to face them in the final.
DeBoer Deserves Some Criticism
Again, chances are the Penguins beat the Sharks regardless of any lineup alterations. However, DeBoer didn't come close to giving his team the best chance to win. In my series preview column, my suggestion was to put Marleau back at third-line center. Going with Marleau's speed in the bottom six, reuniting Joel Ward with Logan Couture and Joonas Donskoi on the second line and decreasing Dillon and Polak minutes were obvious changes that should have been made.
If it was only 80% clear going into the series, it was 100% clear at the end of Game 2. The Sharks had just lost in overtime to go down 2-0 in the series, but the third period comeback, where they finally carried the play, was led by the Donskoi---Couture---Ward line. It is absolutely mind-boggling to me that after their strong third period in Game 2, we basically didn't see that combination for the rest of the series.
The two forwards that needed to be switched? Marleau and Ward were relatively quiet as the series progressed. Marleau scored in Game 1 and Ward scored in Game 3, but they combined for just one other point between them in the series. That one other point was a Ward assist on Justin Braun's game-tying goal late in Game 2, the one period Ward played with Couture and Donskoi in the final.
There is no question the Sharks were at their best in these playoffs when the Donskoi---Couture---Ward line was followed up with a third line led by Marleau. In the middle of the second round against Nashville, the lines got a bit stale, and switching Marleau and Ward worked, but it was crystal clear they needed to be switched back against Pittsburgh.
As for limiting the third pair's ice time, well, it happened a teeny bit in Game 5, but for the most part they played far too many minutes. In his final interview of the season, DeBoer talked about how his team got off to great starts in the first three rounds and not continuing that in the final hurt them. Towards the middle of the interview he mentions not knowing what they could have done differently and that they didn't change anything that had made them successful getting out to good starts in the first three rounds.
DeBoer is correct in that the Sharks didn't change anything. Problem is they needed to change. In Games 2 through 4, the Penguins got off to good starts by scoring first with that weak-link third pair of Polak and Dillon on the ice. On each of those three opening goals, Polak made crucial mistakes. In a league where scoring first is so critical to winning games, the Sharks' Achilles heel put them behind the eight ball three straight times in this series. That hurts.
Had Deboer limited Polak and Dillon's ice time, or realized down the stretch of the season and into the playoffs that rotating in rookie defenseman Dylan Demelo into the lineup was important, the Sharks would have had a better chance of winning this series. Demelo was a big part of San Jose's second-half surge. He was building good chemistry playing with Dillon on a regular basis. Polak comes in as a trade acquisition and supplants Demelo, but that sixth and final defense spot should be subject to alterations. Just like with bottom-six forwards, sometimes a seventh defenseman that has been sitting out can come into the lineup and give the team a different look.
Unfortunately, with Demelo not having played an NHL game in months going into the Stanley Cup final, the Sharks' staff wasn't going to use him even though they desperately needed his puck moving ability on that third pair. Demelo and Dillon had been gelling together because they are like peanut butter and jelly. They work well together. Dillon and Polak as a third defense pair are jelly and jelly. They do not work well together at all.
Great Season, Awful Ending
Obviously getting 14 playoff wins is a terrific season. There was a lot to like about the Sharks and DeBoer made all the right calls to get them to the final. Unfortunately, the coaching staff and General Manager Doug Wilson deserve some blame for the poor choices of trading for and playing Polak over Demelo. Perhaps the Sharks still wouldn't have won that 16th playoff game, but they would have had a significantly better chance at doing so without thinking they needed more grit on the blue line.