Good Luck Stopping These Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks should account for one of the better Stanley Cup Finals we’ve seen recently. Both teams are highly skilled with good depth and impressive young goaltenders. However, the Penguins have something that no one else in the league possesses right now.

Blinding speed.

Pittsburgh doesn’t just skate fast. The system Mike Sullivan has implemented allows players to act on their instincts, which means quick decisions. They move the puck up ice in a hurry then focus on possession and playing behind opposing defenses. Suppressing them is a tall task for anyone and everyone that stands in their way, which was evident when they faced another team deemed extremely fast in the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It’s also going to pose quite the challenge for the Sharks, who have a better all-around defense than the Lightning but may lack the speed required for this matchup. We saw examples of how they’d struggle in the first and third periods of Game 1. Pittsburgh buried San Jose in their own end frequently and tested Martin Jones more than anyone else he has faced so far this postseason.

Pittsburgh Penguins Present Unique Challenge for the Sharks

(Bruce Bennett/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports)
(Bruce Bennett/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports)

Pittsburgh’s speed is one thing. However, what it equates to is a whole new animal for the Sharks and especially their goaltender, who hasn’t necessarily been tested yet in these playoffs. At least, not like this.

Heading into this series, San Jose ranked first in shots-against per 60 minutes of even-strength play with 23.9. In Game 1 alone, Pittsburgh peppered Jones with 41 shots, 36 of which came at even-strength. The Sharks have been the epitome of the ‘bend but don’t break’ philosophy, allowing a ton of shot-attempts but clogging lanes and keeping everything outside.

In other words, Jones hasn’t been all that busy.

Pittsburgh will change that and there’s little San Jose can do about it. It’s simply a strength of theirs that no one has been able to nullify. If you need proof of that, look no further than the Penguins’ plus-75 shot differential and the fact that they’ve out shot their opponents 524-449 through their 19 postseason games.

The Sharks have 413 shots and a plus-12 differential through the same amount of contests.

It’s no fluke that Pittsburgh is in the Stanley Cup Final and leading the series by a game thus far. San Jose is a formidable opponent and will definitely push back but can they actually stop the Penguins?

I don’t believe it’s possible right now.

Things to Watch – Game 2

The match ups in this series are intriguing. Who handles the HBK line? Who does Sullivan task with neutralizing the Sharks’ potent top line? How do the defensive pairings shake out and who do they face most often?

We learned a few things in Game 1.

It’s unclear whether or not it was by design but Sidney Crosby and Company faced San Jose’s third line most often, accruing nearly eight minutes of even-strength time against the likes of Joel Ward, Chris Tierney and Melker Karlsson. Pittsburgh’s HBK line drew the assignment of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl. It’ll be interesting to see if that holds up, as Nick Bonino, Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin were fairly successful at taking away the Sharks’ most dangerous weapons.

And, Crosby had arguably his best game of these playoffs while facing bottom-six talent, which shouldn’t surprise anyone.

While both of those match ups benefitted the Penguins, it came at a cost. Evgeni Malkin and his counterparts were smothered by Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau and Joonas Donskoi. In fact, Donskoi was one of the more visible Sharks throughout the game with a really solid outing. I don’t foresee Sullivan changing his approach, as there will be some give and take against a team as good as the Sharks but it’s worth monitoring to see if he shakes things up to benefit Malkin.

One thing is certain, if Sullivan finds success chasing those same match ups in Game 2, I’d expect a much different look to Game 3 at the Shark Tank when Peter DeBoer has the benefit of last change.

Of course, a lot of that will also depend on the health status of Pittsburgh’s newest hero…

Bryan Rust skated with the team and will be a game time decision for Game 2. According to Rust, he feels fine after absorbing an illegal check to the head by San Jose’s Marleau. All indications are that he’s good to go.

The Sharks are making a lineup change of their own in order to better match Pittsburgh’s speed. Matt Nieto will rejoin San Jose after missing the last few weeks due to an upper-body injury suffered against Nashville. He’ll likely resume his role on the Sharks’ third line, so he could get a heavy dose of Crosby, Conor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist.

Teams that take a 2-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Finals are 44-5 all-time. However, a win tonight doesn’t mean the Penguins can take their foot off the gas. Remember, Pittsburgh erased a 2-0 series deficit in 2009 and won the Cup Final in seven games. San Jose is capable of doing the same.