Cold As Ice Stanley Cup Final Preview, Part Deux: Feel The Burns

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.

 

Stanley Cup Final preview: It’s Shark season

Well, it’s been nearly eight months since the 2015-16 NHL season kicked off and we’re finally ready to decide the winner of the Stanley Cup. It has been an interesting playoff season so far, with a lot of the predicted favorites getting bumped off: Washington, Chicago, LA, Anaheim. The conference finals were excellent matchups, but ultimately it was the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks triumphing with similar styles: Speed, offensive flair, a dash of grit, deep rosters and just enough goaltending to get the job done.

It’s nice that teams with uptempo styles are on the biggest stage; as much I like the Blues, Ken Hitchcock-run teams tend to play a stifling defensive style that can be as exciting as watching paint dry. This series is going to be all about speed, forechecking and special teams.

Great storylines abound:

  • Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau finally getting to the fourth round after years of frustration.
  • Sidney Crosby and company back in the finals after winning the Cup in 2009 and then falling short the last six years.
  • perennially underappreciated Phil Kessel sticking it to the critics and fans in his former cities by leading the Pens in playoff scoring.
  • Pittsburgh getting huge contributions from the likes of Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Nick Bonino et al.
  • Would you have predicted back in October that the starting goalies in the Cup finals would be Matt Murray and Martin Jones? No, you would not have.

Both teams run four effective lines. Offensively, the Sharks have a red-hot Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture (who’s quietly leading the postseason in scoring), Brent Burns and key contributions from Joel Ward, Joonas Donskoi, Tomas Hertl and Chris Tierney. On the defensive end, Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Paul Martin lead a tough D squad that shut down opposing stars like Vladimir Tarasenko, Filip Forsberg and Tyler Toffoli in previous series. Jones has been solid in goal throughout.

The Pens have marquee names like Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but it has been the line of Kessel teaming up with Carl Hagelin and Bonino that has carried the offensive load. Throw in veterans Chris Kunitz, Patric Hornqvist and Matt Cullen along with the upstarts Rust and Sheary and you’ve got a team that has surprised everyone with its depth and two-way play. The Pens will miss Trevor Daley, who excelled on defense before breaking his ankle in the last round. The heat is on stud d-man Kris Letang, young Olli Maata, Brian Dumoulin and Ben Lovejoy to hold off the waves of offensive the Sharks will throw at them. Matt Murray is the starter despite being yanked in favor of longtime #1 Marc-Andre Fleury in the third period of game 4 and for all of game 5 vs. Tampa. If he falters, coach Mike Sullivan will likely have a quick hook.

Most critics are picking the Sharks, but Pittsburgh has been exceeding expectations all postseason. I’m also going with San Jose, but it’s not going to be easy. Crosby has been getting better as the playoffs wore on and reminding people why he’s still one of the best in the game. Ultimately, however, Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski and crew will get their names on the Cup and I for one will be happy to see it.

Sharks in 6.

Halfway there: On to the Conference Finals

And then there were four. The second round featured some exciting series, even if the two game 7s weren’t so thrilling. In the end, another top seed fell by the wayside and new blood has moved on to the Conference Finals.

The shockingly efficient Penguins outplayed the seemingly stacked Capitals and took them out in six games, led not by Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, but the much-maligned Phil Kessel. Rookie Matt Murray was better than Vezina nominee Braden Holtby and ultimately Pittsburgh was just plain better than the team with the best regular-season record in the NHL. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay took out the Islanders in five quick games.

The West was more interesting, as San Jose and St. Louis were put to the test by their respective opponents (Nashville and Dallas) before blowing them out in game 7.

My second-round picks were sort of good: I picked three of the four series winners, if not in the right number of games. On to next two series:

Eastern Conference final

Pittsburgh vs. Tampa Bay

This series appears to be pretty evenly matched. The Lightning are deep, even without the injured Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman, who are practicing with the team but not back yet. To compound matters, goalie Ben Bishop (lower body) was injured in game 1. Andre Vasilevsky relieved Bishop, but the Lightning need their main man back. Meanwhile, the Penguins are relatively healthy; even regular starter Marc-Andre Fleury is ready to go, although the Pens went with Murray in game 1 of the Conference Final. Victor Hedman has been a beast for the Lightning at both ends of the ice, while Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Jonathan Drouin and Ondrej Palat have been providing the offensive spark in  Stamkos’ absence. Meanwhile, the Kessel-Nick Bonino-Carl Hagelin line has been carrying the weight for Pittsburgh. If Crosby and Malkin get going again, the Pens could start to steamroll. Still, the Lightning are well-rested and an excellent, disciplined club. (Despite losing Bishop, Tampa took game 1 last night, 3-1.) This is a tough one so I’m going to hedge my bets: If Bishop returns, it’s Tampa in 7. If he doesn’t, Pittsburgh wins in 6.

Western Conference final

St. Louis vs. San Jose

This is a battle between two perennial underachievers who have exorcised some demons this year. The Blues are back in the Conference Final for the first time in 15 years, while the Sharks have similarly been bounced from the postseason by tough opponents like the Kings while stars like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau get older. Goaltending, a weakness in years past, has been solid as provided by Brian Elliott for St. Louis and Martin Jones for San Jose. The Blues are loaded with big bruisers and play a tough defensive style under coach Ken Hitchcock, while the Sharks have more offensive flair with Thornton, Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Brent Burns, but they also have good two-way contributions from Joel Ward, Joonas Donskoi and Chris Tierney. This is going to be a back-and-forth heavyweight match, but in the end, the Sharks will prevail.

Sharks in 7.