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.