The Pittsburgh Penguins have a total (including playoffs) of 60 wins this season.
The San Jose Sharks, by the same criteria, have 58.
Forget it. None of it means anything at this point.
First team to four wins…
The Stanley Cup Final begins in earnest tomorrow night at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. Despite sluggish starts to each teams’ regular season, both the Sharks and Penguins have acquitted themselves as the two best teams in the NHL.
The Penguins have gotten to this point largely by their collective team speed. Their ability to roll four lines – correction, their ability to roll four fast lines – has been the undoing of their opponents since Mike Sullivan took over for a terminated Mike Johnston in mid-December.
The Sharks meanwhile, have a little bit of everything. Speed, size, skill, grit, you name it. Out of the gate they struggled under new head coach Peter DeBoer, but much like Pittsburgh they began to turn it around in December, and haven’t looked back since.
For the Penguins, the recipe for success will need to be more of the same. If they hope to raise the greatest trophy in sports high above their collective heads some time in the next two weeks, their speed and skating will need to be what carries their day.
Ben Lovejoy spent just over two years with the Anaheim Ducks. So he knows the Sharks pretty well.
In my experience with the Sharks, they try to come out and take the game away from you in the first 10 minutes. They’ll put up 10, 15 shots in the first 10 minutes and score a couple of goals if you let them. We must be aware of that. We must be aggressive early and be ready from puck drop.
– Penguins’ defenseman Ben Lovejoy
Other than Game 1 against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, the Pens have come out a bit sluggish in opening games of series.
Against the Capitals in their conference semifinal matchup, it was a sluggish start that ended in with an overtime loss.
In the Eastern Conference Final, the Tampa Bay Lightning took it to the Pens and stole home-ice advantage right off the hop by winning Game 1 in Pittsburgh.
The Pens haven’t played since Game 7 of the conference final last Thursday night. That’s a span of three days. Logic would say that three days off this time of year can’t be a bad thing. But for a team that relies so heavily on its legs (skating, speed), three days can feel like an entire summer.
The Sharks haven’t played a team like these Penguins in the past month and a half. The West is built on size and bulk.
There is almost a sense of intimidation when looking at the Penguins through the eyes of an opponent. How on earth does another team match up with four lines that skate like the Penguins do? This is what faces DeBoer and his coaching staff, among other things, heading into this series.
Pittsburgh must use that intimidation factor to their advantage, and must do so right from the drop of the puck later tonight. Putting the Sharks back on their heels will go a long way in off-setting any advantages San Jose has over the Pens.
Wave After Wave
After wave, after wave.
San Jose’s depth on defense, or lack thereof, is not more evident than in the ice time that the third pairing of Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak receive.
Brent Burns is a Norris Trophy finalist. Arguably one of the top five defensemen in the game today. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a future Olympian for team Canada, and the Penguins are fully aware of what Paul Martin brings.
Justin Braun is solid in his own right, and is usually paired with Vlasic. Those are the Sharks’ top two defensive pairings.
The Penguins have made a living this postseason of making third defensive pairings look almost silly. The Caps couldn’t figure out game to game who to start and who to scratch because Pittsburgh kept making any two of Taylor Chorney, Nate Schmidt, Dmitry Orlov and Mike Weber look utterly useless in their conference semifinal series.
All four of the Penguins’ lines will eventually be on the ice toe-to-toe with Dillon and Polak. It’s that matchup that Sullivan and his coaching staff must exploit. Rolling all four lines effectively will help the cause.
Stars Must Shine
Sidney Crosby had a good series against the Rangers. So did Evgeni Malkin, once he returned from injury and got into the flow of things.
Both of the Penguins’ big guns disappeared against the Capitals, and carried over said disappearance into Game 1 against the Lightning.
Crosby finished the Eastern Conference Final with three of the Penguins’ four game-winning goals in that series. Malkin eventually started becoming a factor towards the end of that series, finishing with three assists in the final two games.
It goes without saying that to win the Stanley Cup, your stars have to play like stars.
Phil Kessel has more than done his job. Crosby is showing strong signs of coming back to life.
Malkin, showing similar signs to Crosby, hasn’t quite had that breakout game in a while.
More so than Crosby, Malkin has the raw talent and ability to simply take over a game. While the assists are certainly a welcome sight for the Penguins, Malkin needs to start filling the net. He is the one player that the Sharks may have no answer for.
I’m not predicting a winner here.
All I’ll say is that I fully expect this series to go the full seven games, and it should be the best series of these playoffs.
If the Penguins win the Cup, Phil Kessel will win the Conn Smythe.
If the Sharks win the Cup, Joe Pavelski will win the Conn Smythe.
So sit back and enjoy, hockey fans. This figures to be a tremendous two weeks.