The Last Word on Sports 2016 Stanley Cup Final preview breaks down the Pittsburgh Penguins versus the San Jose Sharks. The Penguins are playing for their second Stanley Cup with captain Sidney Crosby and fourth in franchise history. The Sharks are in uncharted waters, playing for the Stanley Cup for the first time in their 25 year history, just 14 months after failing to qualify for the postseason altogether.
2016 Stanley Cup Final Preview
There will be no shortage of star power when both the Penguins and the Sharks can roll out lines with names like Crosby, Joe Thornton, Evgeni Malkin, Joe Pavelski, Phil Kessel, and Patrick Marleau. Both of these teams could form an All-Star-caliber top line with names recognized throughout the league. Both San Jose and Pittsburgh have three lines that are a threat to score. Crosby is almost assuredly the best center of his generation and one of the few that can challenge that is his teammate Evgeni Malkin. Crosby and Malkin have been quietly effective over the first three rounds, with each of the centermen recording 15 points apiece.
The Sharks counter with a first-ballot Hockey Hall of Fame center of their own in Joe Thornton. Thornton in 100 games played the 2015-16 campaign (regular season and playoffs) has recorded 100 points. Captain Joe Pavelski leads all players in the postseason with 13 goals and has been a threat on every power play for the Sharks. Young Tomas Hertl has a tidy 10 points, five of which are goals, as he provides some speed to the Sharks top forward unit.
The Penguins third line features former sixth-round Sharks draft pick Nick Bonino. A pair of highly skilled wingers who the Penguins were able to liberate to bolster their forward depth flank Bonino on the dangerous third line. Oft-maligned right winger Phil Kessel was traded from the Toronto Maple Leafs in a large package deal on July 1 that sent the Maple Leafs best player to the Steel City. The Penguins also traded the struggling David Perron and defensive prospect Adam Clendening to the Anaheim Ducks for Carl Hagelin, who immediately fit right in with Pittsburgh. The Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel line has combined for 17 goals and 28 assists, playing more like a top line in the first three rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Sharks counter with an equally dangerous second line that can score goals while being deployed against the other team’s top scoring threats. Center Logan Couture, who leads the NHL in postseason scoring with 24 points, along with wingers Joonas Donskoi and Patrick Marleau were sent out by Sharks coach Peter DeBoer against the St. Louis Blues top line. Couture tallied a goal and six assists while limiting Vladimir Tarasenko to only two points – a pair of goals late in Game 7 after the Sharks had already jumped to a 4-0 lead. Chris Tierney is quickly showing what made him a second-round selection by the Sharks in 2012 and people are noticing. The Penguins have the nod at the center position, but the Sharks send out three lines of wingers with more size and skill than the Penguins have seen thus far.
No team in the NHL except the Sharks can claim to have the best dressed Wookiee defenseman in the league. Fun-loving Norris Trophy finalist Brent Burns is known for his beard and antics, but his play on the ice has been nearly unstoppable. The Sharks top defenseman recorded 27 goals and 48 assists playing in all 82 games for San Jose during the regular season. His play has since gone up another notch, leading all defenseman in postseason scoring with six goals and 20 points in 18 playoff games while his ice time has decreased nearly a minute per game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Burns’ defensive partner Paul Martin was signed as a free agent from the Penguins, so he will have a bit extra to prove as well.
Following as the Sharks second pairing are the shutdown duo of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, who are DeBoer’s go-to guys when the faceoffs are deep in the Sharks zone and have handled some of the toughest lines in the Western Conference as well, but Crosby or Malkin are a level above what they have seen thus far. Roman Polak and Brenden Dillon do not boast good possession statistics, but they earn a regular shift and help keep the Sharks top pairings fresh, significantly enhancing the entire defensive corps effectiveness late in games.
For Pittsburgh, the Penguins Kris Letang is still considered one of the top puck-moving defensemen in the league but has battled injuries including concussions and a minor stroke over the last few years. He is a smooth skating defenseman with a great outlet pass but is playing almost 29 minutes per night. Against the big and aggressive San Jose forwards, it will be hard for Letang to remain effective if the series goes long. The drop-off in talent behind Letang is likely going to be an issue the Penguins hope to solve with team defense. Trevor Daley, who was averaging over 22 minutes per night, broke his ankle in the Eastern Conference Final and is done for the remainder of the playoffs. Young Olli Maatta and former Oilers defenseman Justin Schultz have stepped in, but as a whole, they cannot match-up with the Sharks defensive depth.
Advantage: San Jose Sharks
Martin Jones has been unequivocally the man in goal for the San Jose Sharks since Game 1 of the first round. DeBoer never wavered and went right back to the young netminder even after a shaky performance in the Western Conference Final that saw Jones get pulled for the first time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Jones pitched back-to-back shutouts and shutout the Nashville Predators in Game 7 of the second round. Jones’ .919 save percentage is solid, but his high-danger shot save percentage has taken a dip in the postseason, a mild concern. However, the defense in front of Jones has played well in wins, and his steady play is what Sharks will need against the powerful Pittsburgh forward lines.
The Penguins have started three different goaltenders during the postseason, but Matt Murray should be the lead dog in the Stanley Cup Final. Murray has stepped in and taken the reigns for an injured Marc-Andre Fleury and despite a hiccup in the Eastern Conference Final, has been the Penguins starter in 15 of their 18 postseason games. Murray is statistically slightly better than Jones, but also has allowed a few soft goals and can drop down too early, opening up more of the top of the net.
Your (probable) Stanley Cup Final Game 1 starters
A playoffs-only comparison pic.twitter.com/mVOh8JV2qE
— Ian Fleming (@imfleming16) May 28, 2016
If the train comes off the rails for either of these two young goalies, the backups could easily be starters. Fleury got a start in Round 3 against the Tampa Bay Lightning and James Reimer nearly caused a goalie controversy in San Jose with three shutouts in eight starts since arriving from the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Advantage: San Jose Sharks (Slightly)
Three Keys to the Stanley Cup Finals
Faceoffs – The San Jose Sharks are the worst faceoff team of all 16 teams that qualified for the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, winning only 46.3% of all draws. The Penguins are right in the middle of the pack at a 50% clip. The ageless Matt Cullen was able to outdraw the Tampa Bay Lightning in the dying moments of Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Final and could make the difference late in games.
Sharks Power Play – Everyone has known what the Sharks want to do on the power play, and Pittsburgh will need to be the first one to stop them. Pittsburgh ranks third in penalty minutes with 153 PIMs. The Sharks own the most lethal power play in the postseason. Thornton’s ability to get the puck to Pavelski for one-timers from the slot has been amazing, and Burns activity from the point is always a threat. You can stop one of them, but the others will still be lurking. This key goes for both teams, if the Sharks can convert, they have an excellent chance to win. If the Penguins can consistently stop San Jose on the man advantage, the balance of power might swing in the series.
Goaltending – Yes, it is a key in every hockey game ever played, but both of these goalies have areas of their game that need to be elevated. Jones’ play in-close has been under his regular season statistics and will need to tighten up when the puck is in close. Murray has been susceptible to the soft goal. Additionally, he drops to his knees early, lowering his glove and opening up the top shelf. The scouts and video teams have undoubtedly noticed this as well but can you make a tweak to your game this late in the season?
Bonus Key: Only Dainius Zubrus and Jones have played in the Stanley Cup Final before. The other 19 San Jose Sharks players who have appeared in at least one game in the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs have never been to a Stanley Cup Final. The Penguins boast five players (Crosby, Malkin, Fleury, Letang, and Chris Kunitz) making their third appearance and two (Hagelin and Cullen) making their second.
Zubrus played in the final for the Philadelphia Flyers in 1997 and under then-New Jersey Devils coach DeBoer in New Jersey in 2012, both were losing efforts. Jones was the backup goalie for the Kings in 2014 on their way to a Stanley Cup win.
Overall, this looks to be a fantastic Stanley Cup Final for fans who love hockey and teams that have redeemed themselves. In December the Penguins brought in coach Mike Sullivan, who turned around a team looking for direction, while DeBoer has taken the Sharks to heights few could have envisioned after the last two years of turmoil.
Both Pittsburgh and San Jose have highly skilled forward groups that can dazzle with spectacular goals and muck it up in front of the net as well. The Sharks have an advantage on the blueline and slight edge in both their starting and backup goalies.
Last Word on the Series: The San Jose Sharks win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games.
The LastWordOnSports.Com Writers Predictions:
Aaron Wrotkowski Penguins in 5
Catherine Dore – Penguins in 7
Griffin Schroeder – Penguins in 7
Markus Meyer – Penguins in 6
Nicholas Di Giovanni – Penguins in 7
Team San Jose
Aaron Hamilton – Sharks in 6
Ben Kerr – Sharks in 7
Charlie O’Connor Sharks in 7
Chris Lizza – Sharks in 6
Connor Ferguson – Sharks in 6
Cristiano Simonetta – Sharks in 7
Ken Hill – Sharks in 7
Matthews Ricks – Sharks in 5
Nic Hendrickson – Sharks in 7
Owen Durkin – Sharks in 6
Shawn Wilken – Sharks in 6
The Fans Prediction
— Last Word On Hockey (@LastWordOnPuck) May 27, 2016