SAN JOSE -- The San Jose Sharks had a rough time against the Pittsburgh Penguins in their second and final regular-season game.
Pittsburgh won 5-1 at SAP Center on Dec. 1, ending its 11-game winless streak (0-10-0 with one tie) in San Jose, and the Sharks know the Penguins team they'll face in the Stanley Cup Final is far better than the one they played nearly six months ago.
The Penguins went 33-16-5 in the regular season under coach Mike Sullivan, a former Sharks forward who was hired Dec. 12 after Mike Johnston was fired.
"I think they definitely changed some things when they brought the new coach in and got that ball rolling in the right direction," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said Friday. "They were the best team in the League in the second half of the year.
"We know how tough an opponent this is. They've got two of the best players in the world (centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin). They're a deep team. It's a great challenge for us. Our guys are excited about it."
Video: PIT@SJS: Malkin dances for beautiful wrap-around goal
Game 1 is in Pittsburgh on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).
"It's a great test for us," Sharks center Joe Thornton said. "They're a great team with some great players. We've got to be ready come Monday night."
The Penguins outshot the Tampa Bay Lightning in all seven games of the Eastern Conference Final, including 39-17 in their 2-1 victory in Game 7.
"They obviously have some top-end talent that could hurt you if you're not checking the way that we want to check," said Sharks defenseman Paul Martin, who signed with San Jose as a free agent July 1 after spending five seasons with Pittsburgh. "They have some depth, like we do. ... When you have that depth, it helps, but at the same time we've been using our depth well. I think it's a good matchup."
The Sharks' top defense pair of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun will spend most of its time on the ice matched up against the Crosby or Malkin lines. In the Western Conference Final, Vlasic and Braun helped hold St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko without a point until he scored two goals late in Game 6, when San Jose clinched the series with a 5-2 win. Tarasenko had 40 goals in the regular season.
Crosby and Malkin will draw a crowd when they're on the ice.
"I think they're two of the best centers in the world," Thornton said. "They both won Art Rosses, Hart Trophies, Stanley Cups, so we definitely got to be aware when they're on the ice."
The Sharks had a full practice Friday and will skate again Saturday morning in San Jose before traveling to Pittsburgh.
Sharks forward Matt Nieto, who hasn't played since Game 6 of the second round against the Nashville Predators because of an upper-body injury, practiced Friday and took some contact for the first time since being injured.
"It felt great to be back out there with the team today," Nieto said. "Doing some contact and it felt really good. That was huge. I've been shooting the puck fine and passing and moving great. So to take the next step was a good feeling."
Nieto said he expects to be available to play at some point in the series, but he did not skate with any of the top four lines.
"Everyone wants to play this time of year, and to be watching from the sidelines wasn't fun," Nieto said. "But the team took care of business. They just played really [good] hockey, and it gives me a chance to try and get back in."
Thornton and Sullivan played together with the Boston Bruins during the 1997-98 season, and Sullivan was his coach in Boston in 2003-04 and 2005-06.
"Great teammate," Thornton said. "I remember when I was 18, 19 years old, just a tremendous teammate, and yeah, he's got the boys working over there. He really turned them around. They were kind of sputtering a little bit, and he comes in, he gives them an identity. It's really worked for him. Very effective coach."