By Sidney Mahan (@PuckSniper_3)
Let me start off by saying I am delighted to type the following words: the Pittsburgh Penguins are four wins away from their fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history, and it’s a point that throughout the first chunk of their season nobody would have expected them to come close to reaching.
The final obstacle between them and the fabled trophy is the San Jose Sharks, a team for whom the Cup final is uncharted territory being explored by the group for the first time in their 25-year existence as an NHL club.
Obviously, reaching the Cup final is never a fluke. Both teams have shattered through expectations and survived difficult matchups and uphill challenges to meet each other in one final stretch. The Penguins have beaten the Rangers, Capitals, and Lightning to earn 3/4 of the number of wins needed to lift the Cup. The Sharks have beaten the Kings, Predators, and Blues to get 12/16 victories. Without further ado, let’s discuss how each team fought their way here and what they need to do to win the ultimate prize.
What a roller coaster of a year it’s been for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Penguins’ start to their season was far from promising. Captain Sidney Crosby immediately got stuck in a slump that saw him fall to below 200th in the league for points and had people wondering if they were seeing the decline of a player who had fully passed his days as the best in the NHL. Head Coach Mike Johnston’s system seemed entirely incompatible with the team. Pascal Dupuis, who won the Cup with the team in 2009 and who has always been a beloved, heart-and-soul part of the Penguins, was forced to suddenly retire due to blood clots. By December, many, even some of the Penguins’ faithful, were not only convinced that the Stanley Cup was far out of reach for that season, but out of reach for a while to come. There was even strong talk that Mario Lemieux, the man who had saved the franchise and kept it in Pittsburgh, would actually end up selling the team at a record price.
And then everything flipped on its head.
On December 12, 2015, the Penguins named Mike Sullivan as the new head coach to replace Johnston. And from that day through the end of the regular season, Sidney Crosby went on a rampage, once again playing like the superstar people were used to seeing. The coaching change seemed to spark Crosby, and from December 12 through the end of the season he outscored every other player in the league, became the 10th fastest player to reach the 900th career point milestone, tallied a point in 15 out of 16 games played in March (earning him the NHL’s First Star of the Month honor), recorded his 600th career assist, scored a career-high nine game winning goals, and went from barely scoring to getting 85 points (36 goals, 49 assists) in 80 games to be third in the league in points, won the award for team MVP, and even received praise from some analysts who thought his stellar two-way game was deserving of a nomination for the Frank J. Selke Trophy as best defensive forward. Oh, and not to mention he was named a finalist for the Hart Trophy for most valuable player along with Chicago’s Patrick Kane and Dallas’ Jamie Benn.
Those two factors, plus the new additions such as Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, the rookies such as Matt Murray, Conor Sheary, and Tom Kuhnhackl, and the presence of talented veteran-role players such as Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr combined to make the team that has made it all the way to the Cup final.
The Penguins need to be at their best to beat a surging San Jose Sharks team, and I label their top three keys to victory as speed, puck possession, and discipline.
Speed has been the Penguins’ new identity this season. They’re at their best when they play a fast game utilized by speedy players, and are at their worst when they aren’t able to jump on their opponents. Speed will be especially important against the Sharks, a team that has killed opponents with their quick puck-moving. If the Penguins can take away speed as an advantage for San Jose and use it instead to forecheck and grab possession of the puck, it will give them a leg up.
That brings me to the second key to victory for the Penguins to lift the Cup: puck possession. A problem I’ve seen since the Round Two series against the Capitals is giving up odd-man rushes after failures to keep the puck cycling in the offensive zone. The Pens need speed to take the puck up the ice, and then they need to make sure they keep the puck in their possession as long as possible. If San Jose is able to force them out of the offensive zone quickly and rush it back the other way, it’s going to be a tough series for Pittsburgh. The Penguins have to quickly lose their curse of getting stuck in their own zone for extended periods of time as well. The best moments the Capitals and Lightning had against the Penguins were often when they were able to keep the Penguins trapped for minutes on end while they got several looks at Murray or Marc-Andre Fleury. The Penguins can’t afford to make that mistake against an explosive Sharks team; it would be much better if they could do that to the Sharks.
Finally, and maybe even most importantly – the Penguins have to be completely disciplined in this series. I would definitely like to see them come out and be fiercely physical against the Sharks if it’s going to help them establish dominance, but there’s no room for spending time trying to fend off San Jose’s lethal power play. The Penguins have a good penalty kill, but any power play opportunity San Jose gets is a chance for the Sharks to strike a crippling blow to Pittsburgh. The Penguins’ power play needs to do their very best to capitalize on any power play opportunities they get, and make sure their penalty kill units just don’t see too much time. That means no stupid sequences of delay-of-game penalties (hahahahahahahaNO), and no Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang losing their cool and throwing brainless tantrums that earn them a trip to the sin bin. San Jose may try needling the Penguins if they need to, and the Pens can’t let themselves become shark bait.
Oh, but there’s one more thing. Game 1 is a home game for Pittsburgh, and the Penguins have home ice advantage in this series. To me, it is very important that the Penguins take full use of home games. The Sharks are very good at home, and the Penguins have historically struggled in San Jose. This regular season, the Penguins’ one win vs. the Sharks did come in San Jose, but the Penguins want to make sure that they also play well in the Burgh. Of course, the road wins are necessary pickups as well, but the Penguins want to make sure they make it tough for San Jose to play at CONSOL Energy Center. Get loud, Pittsburgh fans!
If the Penguins play to their full potential, there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s within their capabilities to get four more wins. Remember, throughout these playoffs – heck, even through the regular season – we’ve learned that the Pittsburgh Penguins are an extremely resilient group (refer back to my first article on the Penguins Showing Real Resiliency). In the Eastern Conference Final, after playing less-than admirable hockey in Games 4 and 5 and finding themselves down 3-2 in the series and facing elimination, the Penguins rallied with solid performances in Games 6 and 7 to earn their trip to the Stanley Cup Final. We learned that the stars were able to quickly bounce out of slumps – Sidney Crosby, who’d been taking fire since failing to score against the Capitals, had the game-winning goals in the first three of the Penguins’ wins against Tampa. Meanwhile, players in lesser roles also stepped up. Matt Murray, after being benched in favor of Fleury for Game 5, rallied with two excellent performances under pressure for the Penguins. I’d look to see the stars lead, with Crosby and Malkin coming off a fantastic series, but I’d also look at the secondary scoring stars (for example, HBK line and the explosive rookies like Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Bryan Rust) and stellar play from the defensive corps that will have to do this without the solid minutes from Trevor Daley.
It took 25 years, but the San Jose Sharks are in the Stanley Cup Final, and they look to be in a pretty good position to win it.
Captain Joe Pavelski is the leading favorite for the Conn Smythe Trophy, and for good reason. Pavelski has easily been the Sharks’ leading offensive force. He leads all players in these playoffs with 13 goals, and is second overall in points with 22. A lot of Pavelski’s offensive production has come from battling for position in front of the net and getting his stick on pucks all over the offensive zone. He’s probably one of the most underrated players in the NHL when it comes to his skill at redirecting shots past goaltenders, and is able to score from a variety of angles and positions simply because of his ability to just get a stick on the puck.
Also, all of San Jose’s forwards have committed to a team-wide strategy to be hard checkers in all three zones of the ice. The Sharks have a fierce, physical forecheck to rival the Penguins’ speed forecheck, and are likely to come out in the Final with a highly physical game the likes of which the Penguins probably haven’t experienced yet these playoffs. But it’s not just their forwards who are playing “shut-down” hockey. San Jose currently has some strong defensemen for them. Not just Brent Burns, who is one of the reasons why the Sharks’ power play is downright scary, but also former Penguin Paul Martin, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Justin Braun. These defensemen were huge reasons why the St. Louis Blues’ scoring machine Vladimir Tarasenko was unable to register a point in the Sharks-Blues Western Conference Final until the final game of the series, when he scored two third-period goals in an unfinished comeback by the Blues. The reason why Tarasenko was suddenly having so much trouble doing what he does is because the San Jose defense barely allowed him time or space to do anything. It’s obvious that the Penguins’ stars are going to be trying to lead the Pittsburgh offense, but it’s going to be a tough job to be able to do that against the Sharks’ formidable defense.
But it gets harder than even that for the Penguins. As much as the Penguins can be called a resilient group, so can the Sharks. For the last half of the regular season and throughout these playoffs, they’ve shown an ability to be able to come right back after taking tough losses. Against the Blues, San Jose rebounded after both of St. Louis’ wins, which came in Games 1 and 4. Basically, the Sharks don’t get easily rattled after getting beaten. They have a real confidence in their game, and a loss just means reset and get back to doing what you do. San Jose isn’t going to be an easy team to pile up consecutive wins against for this very reason; if the Penguins win any game, look to see San Jose make a real effort to come right back. The Penguins were able to force two “meh” games out of the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6 and 7; I was utterly surprised with the lack of effort from the Lightning in Game 6 when they had a chance to win the series at home, and although they played better in Game 7, I was still expecting to see even more intensity. It’s unlikely to be the same case with the Sharks.
Yeah, long story short, San Jose’s a pretty difficult opponent.
It’s going to be a dynamite 2016 Stanley Cup Final, guaranteed. Now, obviously one side will look back on this year fondly and the other not so much, but you’re in for some good hockey. Two fast teams both battling to lift the shining Cup so coveted by every single player in this league. Two teams who emerged from a pool of 30 clubs to win the ultimate opportunity. Two teams who are literally so close they are probably already imagining that the Cup feels like or what the champagne they drink from the Cup will taste like. They’re probably a nervous mess of excitement, exhilaration, anxiety, and overall adrenaline. Remember, the Stanley Cup is the prize that everyone plays for. Every hockey kid in the world dreams at some point of one day lining up for the chance to one day be this guy, wearing a Stanley Cup Champions cap and getting ready to throw the Cup in the air, to be frozen in time in this moment:
It will be an emotional, intense series, with players sacrificing everything to win it. And, of course, the fans will be with their teams every step of the way, feeling the same mix of emotions as the players. The way everyone sees it, we got this far – it’s be cruel if we can’t cross the finish line. These guys have gone most of the way, but the final sprint begins tonight, 8:00 PM ET, in Pittsburgh. It’s time.