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Stanley Cup Final Series Storylines: Penguins vs. Sharks

by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

Penguins vs. Flyers Round One Schedule:

Wednesday, April 11 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
Friday, April 13 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
Sunday, April 15 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - 3:00 p.m. - NBC
Wednesday, April 18 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
*Friday, April 20 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
*Sunday, April 22 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - TBD - TBD
*Tuesday, April 24 - Tampa Bay at PITTSBURGH - TBD - TBD

Pittsburgh Penguins
Overall: 48-26-8
VS San Jose Sharks
Overall: 46-31-5
Home: 25-13-3

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. San Jose Sharks
Gm 1 Monday, May 30  8:00PM
Gm 2 Wednesday, June 1 8:00PM
Gm 3 Saturday, June 4 8:00PM
Gm 4 Monday, June 6
Gm 5 *
Thursday, June 9 8:00PM
Gm 6 *
Sunday, June 12
Gm 7 *
Wednesday, June 15
Games marked in BOLD indicate home games.
* If necessary
All times EDT
  D Trevor Daley, broken ankle
F Pascal Dupuis, IR
F Kevin Porter, ankle surgery
F Scott Wilson, lower body
  F Matt Nieto, upper-body


Two of the NHL’s most successful franchises in recent years, the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks, meet for the right to lay claim to the Stanley Cup.

Pittsburgh and San Jose played both of its games against one another this season before the Penguins made the move to make Mike Sullivan head coach. San Jose was victorious on Nov. 21 at CONSOL Energy Center (3-1) and the Penguins returned the favor by winning 5-1 at the SAP Center at San Jose on Dec. 1. Pittsburgh’s win that night erased a 12-game Pens’ losing streak in San Jose (0-9-3) dating back to 1997.

Here are the main storylines to follow...

It’s hard to believe that this will be San Jose’s first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since the franchise was formed back in 1991 – the year Pittsburgh won its first. Since 2004, the Sharks have more playoff appearances (11) than the Pens (10), with each team making at least four appearances in the conference finals during that time span – but San Jose was just never able to advance this far.

Their tenured veterans and two of the NHL’s biggest stars, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, were taken first and second overall at the 1997 NHL Draft hosted by Pittsburgh. Since then, Thornton has played 1,367 career regular-season games while Marleau has skated in 1,411 without ever making it to this point of this season. It’s incredible to think about.

That being said, while the Sharks haven’t been here, the Pens haven’t been back as often as people may have expected them to in the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin era. It’s been seven years since they hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup over their heads back in 2009, their second of back-to-back trips to the Final. With everything that’s transpired since, those players realize what it takes to get back to this point. As the captain said himself following their Game 7 win over Tampa Bay, “It’s not easy. Having gone through a couple of those early on, 20 and 21 years old, playing in the Final, I think you have more of an appreciation for it now. Just love the opportunity to be able to get back.”

And for those players on Pittsburgh’s side who haven’t been there before either – most notably, Phil Kessel – they are cherishing the chance to be in this moment. Both sides truly understand what it takes to get here, and neither wants to let the opportunity get away.

These two teams are similar in a lot of respects, particularly when it comes to how they got here. Both the Sharks and the Pens got off to mediocre starts and began turning their seasons around at about the same time, back in December. It took the Sharks a couple months to figure out how to work with their first-year coach, while the Pens had just gotten introduced to their new one who had taken over for Mike Johnston.

And both Pete DeBoer and Mike Sullivan have since instilled a group mindset into their teams. The message from both those coaches to their players is very similar. According to Thornton, DeBoer “really stressed it's going to take everybody to get us where we need to go,” while Sullivan recently said, “This team has had success because it's been a team and everyone participates and contributes to helping us win.”

In addition, players on both sides have talked about how close they are with each other. Thornton said the Sharks have a lot of fun together, while Nick Bonino marveled at how tight the Pens are. “We’re all friends, we all get along. You don’t find that in every room,” he said. “There’s not that one guy no one wants to hang out with. Everyone’s pretty close and pretty happy to be around each other, and teams that are close like that usually can make some noise.”

And finally, they both play similar styles on the ice. Pens fans know that their team likes to play with speed and pace; so do the Sharks. They’ve used that to dictate their style of play throughout these playoffs as they’re relentless on tracking down pucks in all three zones. After St. Louis was eliminated from the Western Conference Final in six games, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock praised San Jose’s commitment to checking. “That's how you win at the end,” he said. “Offense will take care of itself if you're fully logged in to check and you're 100 percent committed to forwards working for the defense and everyone working for the goalie. You're going to win.”

But one of these teams has to lose. It seems to be the case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object – two close-knit teams who epitomize that term and have a complete belief in their styles. We’ll see what the answer to that age-old paradox is soon enough.

The Sharks have so much depth on their blue line. They added to it when they signed Paul Martin to a four-year deal this summer. The former Pen had spent the last five seasons in Pittsburgh and had been a huge part of the team. He was their Defensive Player of the Year the last time they advanced to the conference final back in 2013 and was a calming presence on the back end. He’s been on a pair with Brent Burns, arguably the most dynamic and electric defenseman in the league (and definitely the most unique). Burns had 27 goals this season, six more than the next-closest defenseman, and has been even better so far this postseason. He leads all blueliners with 20 points (6G-14A) in 18 games.

However, while Burns and Martin will likely get most of the attention this series, the Sharks have a third defenseman who’s arguably their most important. Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic is one of the best NHL players that people in the East have probably never heard of. The 10th-year NHLer is coming off of a career year offensively, but it’s his two-way work that makes him so good as he is the one tasked with shutting down the other team’s top players – and has done a tremendous job of that these playoffs. He allowed a combined one goal and one assist to Los Angeles’ Tyler Toffoli, Nashville’s Filip Forsberg and St. Louis’ Vladimir Tarasenko the first three rounds.

Vlasic’s play doesn’t go unnoticed by Hockey Canada, as he will represent his country for the fourth time internationally at the World Cup of Hockey in September. As DeBoer put it, “I think the fact he’s one of the first four defensemen named to Team Canada should scream to everybody how good this guy is. But for some reason, it doesn’t. You really have to watch him to appreciate how good night-in and night-out he is.” The Pens will be doing that soon enough.

While the Sharks deserve a lot of credit for how they’ve been able to shut teams down, they’ll likely have their biggest challenge yet with Pittsburgh as they have yet to face a club with as much elite talent spread throughout their lineup. The Pens present nightmare matchups for opponents, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel all playing on different lines. Those players have been productive, but they haven’t necessarily been carrying the load offensively.

For example, Bryan Rust stepped up with both goals in their Game 7 win over Tampa Bay. Fourth-line center Matt Cullen has had a number of clutch goals throughout the postseason. As Bolts head coach Jon Cooper said when asked about the HBK Line, “You sit there and think of the lines that they keep rolling out, there's just another line that you have to worry about. When you can go three and four lines deep, it's a tough matchup for teams.”

In addition, the Pens have so much speed – epitomized in a player like Hagelin. They do a tremendous job of chasing down pucks, winning foot races, getting in on the forecheck and applying back pressure using that ability to get up and down the ice so quickly. We’ll see how the Sharks are able to handle that.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s depth on the blue line got tested when they learned they would be without Trevor Daley for the remainder of the playoffs after he fractured his ankle in Game 4 against Tampa Bay. Daley has been one of the biggest reasons for the Pens’ resurgence, as he and Carl Hagelin keyed the Pens’ transition into a speed team.

Daley’s injury meant that Olli Maatta, who had been a healthy scratch after playing in Game 1, would have to slot back in – and he looked back to his old self. He had looked a step slow and made some tough decisions with the puck throughout the playoffs, but those struggles were gone from his game upon his return. He looked like the player who earned a roster spot with Pittsburgh at just 19 years old because he was that good; the top-four defenseman who is solid and steady at both ends of the ice.

His resurgence has been absolutely key, as has the strong play of the rest of the group – namely Brian Dumoulin, who’s been absolutely tremendous playing alongside Kris Letang. Dumoulin just finished his first full NHL season, but is playing like a seasoned vet out there and has gotten better and better as the playoffs have progressed. Everybody is playing within themselves and is playing to their strengths, and that’s helped them come together.

Those six men on the Pens’ blue line are going to have arguably their biggest challenge yet with the Sharks, who also roll all four lines and have the NHL’s top-two point producers in Joe Pavelski – who ranks first with 13 goals – and Logan Couture, whose 24 points are No. 1. As Justin Schultz said, it’s just a different game in the West. They play a much heavier, physical style out there. It’s a lot more tight-checking and it feels like there’s so much less space. But what makes the Sharks so scary is that a lot of teams play that game, but don’t necessarily have the speed to go along with it – but San Jose does. That’s something the Pens haven’t necessarily experienced yet, and it’s not going to be easy.

"The Sharks are a team that I got to play a lot. I was in the Western Conference for five years,” former Blue Ian Cole said. “They’re a team that they have a lot of team speed just like us, but they’re big, they’re strong, they have skill. Those big guys have skill. So they’re going to be a challenge. So I think the ability to transition quickly and obviously try to force those guys to the outside is going to be huge."

For the most part, the Pens did a good job of staying out of the penalty box against Tampa Bay – especially in the elimination games. And when they did allow them to get opportunities, the Lightning only struck twice. The Pens have continued to have success with their aggressive style of penalty killing. Sullivan likes to send out shorthanded tandems who also play together at even-strength, like Bonino/Hagelin and Cullen/Fehr. Bonino and Cullen are relied on to take the big draws and make smart plays, while Hagelin’s speed and Fehr’s reach complement their linemates. And of course, defensemen Ian Cole and Ben Lovejoy have done a tremendous job of developing into the Pens’ shorthanded specialists.

They’re going to need that to continue against the Sharks, who have an excellent power play. They finished the regular season with the league’s third-best power play and have been even better in the postseason, ranking second overall by going 17 for 63 (27 percent). The Sharks have scored a power-play goal in 11 of 18 games during the postseason, going 9-2 in games when they score on the man-advantage.

Couture leads all NHL players with 11 playoff power-play points (4G-7A) while Pavelski, who is incredibly skilled at re-directing pucks past goaltenders, has a team-best five power-play tallies. One potential positive for the Penguins? The Blues held the Sharks without a power-play goal in four of the six games in the Western Conference Final. The Pens are going to have to try and do the same when they are in the penalty box.

Goaltender Martin Jones is the only Shark on their roster with a Stanley Cup ring, having served as Jonathan Quick’s backup during Los Angeles’ title run in 2014. San Jose gave up a first-round draft pick to acquire Jones this past summer despite having just 36 total games of NHL experience in his two seasons with the Kings. It was a hefty price to acquire an unproven starter, but it’s paid off as the 26-year-old thrived in his first full season as the No. 1 – leading them to this point.

During the playoffs, Jones currently leads all netminders in wins (12) and shutouts (3) entering this series, while posting a 2.12 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage. Jones has been dominant in his 12 wins, posting a 1.58 goals-against average and a .939 save percentage. In his six losses his goals-against average has jumped to 3.12 and his save percentage has fallen to .881. He has given up four goals in four of his six defeats. During the regular season, Jones ranked third in the NHL with 37 wins, trailing only Washington’s Braden Holtby (48) and Quick (40). He’s a big goalie who takes up a lot of net at 6-foot-4, and has a quiet athleticism.

While Jones was expected to handle starting duties for the Sharks, that wasn’t necessarily the case for Matt Murray. However, the rookie netminder – who turned 22 earlier this week – has earned the net. Murray faced a huge test in Game 6, returning to the net as the Pens faced elimination for the first time all playoffs after getting a rest in the previous game. He was tremendous, making 17 of his 28 saves in the third period to keep the Pens’ season alive. He became the first rookie goaltender in franchise history to register a victory with the team facing elimination from the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the third goaltender in the expansion era (since 1967-68) to reach double digits in postseason wins before hitting the mark in the regular-season, joining Montreal’s Ken Dryden (1971) and Calgary’s Mike Vernon (1986).

Murray was just as strong in Game 7. He wasn’t faced with a lot of shots, but the Bolts are a quick-strike team who don’t need many to still be dangerous as they can turn a game on one play. He made several huge and timely saves on quality chances as the Pens came away with a tight 2-1 win to allow them the chance to compete for a Stanley Cup. He may be young and relatively inexperienced, but his maturity has blown everybody away.

“He has a calming influence,” Sullivan said. “He doesn't get rattled. If he lets a goal in, he just continues to compete. That's usually an attribute that usually takes years to acquire that, and to have it at such a young age is impressive. That's always impressed us about him. Certainly, it's impressed me since I've got to know him and watch him as a goaltender but also as a person. He's a real hard competitor, and I think one of his biggest strengths is just his ability to stay in the moment and not get overwhelmed by the circumstances surrounding him. He controls what he can. He competes hard, and I think he has a calming influence on the group.”

These are the biggest circumstances Murray will face yet. So far, he’s been able to handle and bounce back from the adversities he’s faced. The Pens will need that continue in the Final if they want to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup.
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