Editor’s note: Cold As Ice contributor Phil Stacey weighs in with his preview of the Cup final.
I’ve been watching the National Hockey League for almost 40 years now, and never can I recall a postseason as unpredictable as this.
I’ve picked more losers during these playoffs than Eddie Mush did at the racetrack in “A Bronx Tale.” I had both the Sharks and Penguins losing in the first round. Ironically, I’ve bet against the Pittsburgh Penguins in each of the first three rounds, and each time been proven wrong by the Sons of Mario Lemieux.
Unfortunately for the Penguins and their fans, I think their streak of remarkable playoff fortune is about to come to an end.
You don’t reach the Stanley Cup final on pure luck, of course. A multitude of events have to sync properly in your favor, including timely scoring, huge saves at key moments, and role players stepping forward to assume the role of hero for a shift, a period, a game or even an entire series. Having said that, I don’t think those confluence of circumstances will continue for the Steel City Boys against a Sharks team that—pardon the pun—hungers for its first ever championship.
I’m picking San Jose to sip from hockey’s holy chalice in six games—although a shorter series would not surprise me. Here are the primary reasons I believe the state of California will claim top honors in the NHL for the fourth time in a decade:
- It’s the biggest advantage the Sharks hold over the Penguins, and it’s not even close. Brent Burns might win the Conn Smythe Award on his presence alone; the burly, bushy blueliner can do everything from muscle foes from the front of his crease to jump start the offense, be it 5-on-5 or with the man advantage. He’s a different maker literally every shift he takes. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Roman Polak, Paul Martin and Justin Braun all bring a level of effectiveness and shutdown capabilities. Pittsburgh is less mobile, prone to making mistakes in their own end and, after a season-ending injury to Trevor Daley in the Eastern Conference Final against Tampa Bay, much thinner. Kris Letang is going to be asked to play big minutes—like 30 minutes a night—and San Jose’s big boys will wear him down over the course of this series.
- Speed. Both teams have oodles of it, but the Sharks go from zero to 60 just a stride or two faster. Burners like Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and fourth liner Joonas Donskoi, among others, are attacking forwards with nonstop motors. The Penguins don’t exactly employ a fleet of Yugos, not with Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin and Letang in the lineup, but the Sharks are better from 1-to-18.
- The road to riches. Consider who both squads defeated to reach this point. San Jose ripped through the favored Los Angeles Kings, the plucky Nashville Predators and an excellent (but forever snakebitten) St. Louis Blues club. All three were excellent defensively until the Sharks tore through them with relative ease. The Penguins, in reaching the peak of the much more inferior Eastern Conference, they defeated a slow New York Rangers team that showed the fatigue of long playoff runs the previous two seasons; a Washington Capitals club that once again choked under the weight of postseason expectations; and a Tampa Bay Lightning squad that fizzled in Games 6 and 7. Advantage, Sharks.
- Midnight strikes for Matt Murray. It’s been one of the best stories of this year’s postseason: Matt Murray riding to the rescue and backstopping the Penguins to win after win, series after series in these playoffs. He’s been fun to watch in goal … but in the Cup final, he’ll go back to being a pumpkin. Martin Jones, the far more reliable and technically sound of the two, gets his name etched on the Cup for San Jose.
I’m no Sidney Crosby hater—far from it. I love his game, his net drive, his willingness to do anything it takes to get a win. But his ’stache? Terrible. How do you not go with the Grizzly Adams look of Thornton, Burns & Co.?
I’m looking forward to Pavelski being handed the Cup, then turning it over to the first two picks of the 1997 Draft—Joe Thornton, then Patrick Marleau—as they happily lift the lightest 35 pound silver mug of their lives.