The world's most famous trophy. The ultimate goal. The dream.
Which team will spend the summer of 2012 celebrating with the Stanley Cup?
Rosen has the Penguins and Blackhawks competing in the Stanley Cup Final. Hradek has the Penguins and Sharks going after the big prize.
And the winner is...
ROSEN'S STANLEY CUP CHAMP
They know how to do it because they've done it before. They know what it takes and they understand the grind. The Blackhawks also now have a greater appreciation for what they accomplished in 2010 and how difficult it will be to do it again.
It took a nearly missing the playoffs last season for the Hawks to fully appreciate how special it is to win in this League. When they were going through it, knocking off Nashville, Vancouver, San Jose and Philadelphia to win the franchise's first Cup in 49 years, it all seemed so easy, so right -- mostly because it was a team that didn't know failure.
They were supposed to be a team on the rise in 2008, and they were. They were supposed to be a playoff team in 2009, and they were, making it all the way to the Western Conference Finals. They were supposed to be a Cup contender in 2010, and, of course, they were.
Last season, though, the Blackhawks left their playoff fate in the hands of another team and only got in because the Dallas Stars lost. Before they got their feet under them again, they were in a 0-3 series hole against the Canucks.
Chicago nearly dug all the way out of it, losing the series to Vancouver in overtime of Game 7, but the lessons learned then will come in handy now.
Appreciate your talent. Understand how good you can be. Don't let the moment pass you by.
The Blackhawks won't. Team captain Jonathan Toews said most of all, he learned last season how much he really hates to lose.
He won't. The Cup will return to the Windy City.
HRADEK'S STANLEY CUP CHAMP
After much thoughtful deliberation, I’ve got the Penguins and Sharks meeting in the Stanley Cup Final. That would be a heck of match, co-starring two pretty intense fan bases.
The Pittsburgh faithful would love to raise another banner, the first in new Consol Energy Center. San Jose supporters, on the other hand, have a desperate thirst to take that first-ever sip from the big silver Cup. I can't imagine how loud it would get in the Shark Tank (HP Pavilion) in the final minutes of a Cup-clinching victory.
Now I have to take one more peek into my pre-season crystal ball and give you a winner. It's tough because I think the two squads, when healthy, are very evenly matched.
In goal, Marc-Andre Fleury and Antti Niemi both bring championship experience to their respective crease. Fleury backstopped the Pens to the 2009 title, while Niemi was between the pipes for Blackhawks' championship run in 2010. Right now, I'd give Fleury an edge.
On defense, the Sharks made a big upgrade with the addition of Brent Burns, who'll fit nicely alongside Dan Boyle at the top of the team's blue-line depth chart. Hard-hitting Douglas Murray and veteran additions Jim Vandermeer and Colin White bring the necessary grit.
The Penguins have similar balance with clever young puck-mover Kris Letang and quietly effective Paul Martin leading the rush from the back end, while rugged Brooks Orpik and shot-blocking specialist Zbynek Michalek provide a physical presence.
In my view, both defensive units are championship quality. At this point, I'd give the Sharks a slight edge because of their experienced depth.
These teams also have world-class forwards. Up the middle, the Penguins can roll out Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, while the Sharks counter with Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Michal Handzus.
On the wing, the Penguins have scorers like James Neal, Steve Sullivan, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. The Sharks, meanwhile, bring top guns like Patrick Marleau, Martin Havlat, Ryane Clowe and Joe Pavelski (who has been working alongside Thornton and Marleau in training camp).
In the end, because I value centers more than wingers in terms of helping teams win, I'd give the Penguins forwards a little bit of an advantage.
Both teams are very well coached by Dan Bylsma and Todd McLellan. Both guys have Cup rings, but McLellan's came as an assistant to Mike Babcock in Detroit. Bylsma earned his ring in his current role as Penguins coach. I guess that gives him an experience edge.
If things roll as I think, I know we'd have one heck of a Cup Final series. Who wins? While the Sharks would be a handful, I'd think Crosby, Malkin & Co. would find a way to raise the Cup for the second time in four seasons.