The San Jose Sharks have finally made the Stanley Cup Finals and have the monkey off their backs. This is the franchise’s first ever appearance since their inception in the 1991-1992 season. It has been a roller coaster road for the franchise over the past 25 years. For their first two seasons, they were one of the worst teams in NHL history with a .192 points percentage. After their first decade of uneven play, the Sharks started to build a powerhouse after the turn of the century. They became a perennial contender that has the second-best record in the NHL since the 2003-2004 season. They have had 11 playoff appearances during this span, including winning the Pacific division five times, but were never able to get over the hump into the Stanley Cups Finals. That drought is finally over.
On the other side of the ice, the Pittsburgh Penguins won a hard fought Game 7 last night and will look to ride that momentum into the Stanley Cup Finals. The Penguins have not been to the Stanley Cup Finals since 2009. That year they avenged their loss the previous season to the Detroit Red Wings, and beat them in Game 7 of the Finals rematch. That was Sidney Crosby’s first and, so far, only Stanley Cup title, but he will look to win his second this year to match his idol, Penguins’ legend, and former landlord Mario Lemieux. Pittsburgh has been the hottest team in the league the past few months, including eliminating the top seed and President Trophy winner, the Washington Capitals. They will look to continue to ride that hot streak in the Stanley Cup Finals.
How They Got Here
Round 1 – Defeated the Los Angeles Kings in five games
Round 2 – Defeated the Nashville Predators in seven games
Western Conference Finals – Defeated the St Louis Blues in six games
Round 1 – Defeated the New York Rangers in five games
Round 2 – Defeated the Washington Capitals in six games
Eastern Conference Finals – Defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games
San Jose: Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau will be both be lacing up their skates for the first time ever in the Stanley Cup Finals. Drafted #1 and #2 overall in the 1997 NHL Draft, they have played a combined 3,093 regular season and playoff games to get this point. It is especially sweet for Marleau, as he has been on the Sharks for his entire 18 year career. The real star for the Sharks is their Captain Joe Pavelski. He has 13 goals in the playoffs this year, including four game winners. These veteran leaders and playmakers will be a big key for San Jose in the Finals.
Pittsburgh: Arguably the best player in the world, Sidney Crosby was nothing short of magnificent for the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals. Scoring the game winning goal in three games and finishing with 15 points in the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Captain willed the Penguins to its third Stanley Cup Final appearance during his career. Other than Crosby, the HBK third line has paced the Penguins throughout the playoffs and validated the Penguins’ management for the Phil Kessel trade last offseason. Almost an afterthought, the Penguins have former MVP Evgeni Malkin paired on line with rookie Bryan Rust, the hero from Game 7.
Advantage: A strength for both teams, I will give the team with Crosby, Malkin, and Phil Kessel the advantage almost every time. Do not sleep on the Sharks attack though.
San Jose: Brent Burns has once again been the star of the Sharks defense. The bearded Canadien leads all defenseman in the playoffs with 20 points. He has also put up a +8 rating in the playoffs, including a +5 in the Games 3 through 6 of the Western Conference Finals to lead the Sharks to the Cup Finals. The rest of of the Sharks defense has been solid as well with Justin Braun, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and ex-Penguin Paul Martin.
Pittsburgh: Kris Letang might quietly be the MVP of the Penguins this season. Playing almost 29 minutes per game in the playoffs, he has anchored the Pittsburgh defense, while also scoring two goals and assisting on eight more. The Ben Lovejoy and Olli Maatta line has also been consistent throughout the playoffs, giving the Penguins good minutes and allowing Letang to catch his breath.
Advantage: I give the Sharks a slight advantage because of how valuable Burns is for them on offense and defense.
San Jose: Martin Jones has been the man for San Jose. He has started every game for the Sharks and has 12 wins with a .919 save percentage. Jones also has a Stanley Cup championship under his belt from 2014 when he was the backup for Jonathan Quick of the LA Kings.
Pittsburgh: Probably the biggest surprise to hockey fans, Matt Murray has come out of nowhere to lead the Penguins to the Stanley Cup. After an injury to Marc-Andre Fleury, the rookie Murray was put in net for the Penguins. He has not disappointed and has led them to 11 playoff wins with a .924 save percentage. Not bad for a guy who just turned 22 on Wednesday.
Advantage: Pretty even, but I will give Murray and the Penguins the nod despite his inexperience. The kid has ice in his veins.
San Jose: Peter DeBour has taken the Sharks to the Stanley Cup Finals in his first year as Head Coach of the team. He previously coached the Florida Panthers and New Jersey Devils. In 2012, he took the Devils to the Stanley Cup Finals, but lost to the LA Kings in six games.
Pittsburgh: Another Head Coach in his first season, Mike Sullivan is one of the more unlikely coaches to make the Stanley Cup. The Penguins started the year with Mike Johnston as coach, but after 28 games, management relieved him of his duties and replaced him with Sullivan. Sullivan had previously coached the Boston Bruins for two season in the early 2000s, but has been an assistant for various teams in the last decade.
Advantage: DeBour and the Sharks get the nod here due to his previous Finals experience.
This is going to be a great Stanley Cup Finals, with two of the best and most entertaining teams in hockey on the ice. The Sharks winning their first Stanley Cup would be a great story for a team that has been known for playoff underachievement. It would also be great for Sidney Crosby to add to his legacy by raising the Cup for the second time in his career. This series could go either way, but my heart says the Penguins win in six games.
Statistics Courtesy of Hockey-Reference.com
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Rocky W. Widner