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Sharks vs Penguins Stanley Cup Final Preview

by Staff Writer / San Jose Sharks

The San Jose Sharks have been in the NHL for 25 years but have never played in the Stanley Cup Final.

That changes Monday.

For the first time in their history, the Sharks are four wins away from winning the Cup. Their pursuit continues in the Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

It will be a thrilling time for the Sharks, particularly veteran forwards Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton. Marleau has been in San Jose since he was the second player selected at the 1997 NHL Draft; he has played 1,411 regular-season games with the Sharks and another 165 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Thornton arrived in 2005 in a trade with the Boston Bruins.

"We're just enjoying the ride right now," Marleau said. "We've had some really good teams over the years. This team is a little bit different.

"The confidence we've built over the regular season and now in the playoffs, I think winning on the road helped us get close as a group during the regular season. It carried over into the playoffs so far. Just having each other's back out there, working for each other."

Sharks defenseman Brent Burns has emerged as one of the better defensemen in the NHL and was recognized last month when he was named a Norris Trophy finalist. Burns had 75 points (27 goals, 48 assists) in the regular season.

The Penguins have been a different team since Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston as coach 28 games into the season. Sullivan has allowed the Penguins to use their speed to their advantage, and top players such as centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, right wing Phil Kessel, and defenseman Kris Letang have thrived.

Crosby scored 36 goals and had 85 points during the regular season, and he and Malkin each has 15 points in the playoffs. Letang has 10 points and a plus-4 rating.

"We know how tough an opponent this is," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. "They've got two of the best players in the world (Crosby and Malkin). They're a deep team. It's a great challenge for us. Our guys are excited about it."

The Final will feature a unique goaltending matchup.

Martin Jones was acquired by the Sharks on June 30 to be their No. 1 goaltender and has shown he is capable of filling that role, winning 37 games during the regular season and going 12-6 with a 2.12 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in the playoffs.

Matt Murray has supplanted Marc-Andre Fleury as the No. 1 goalie in Pittsburgh after the latter sustained a concussion March 31. Fleury had a chance to grab his job back in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but he allowed four goals on 25 shots in a 4-3 overtime loss.

Murray turned 22 on May 25 and has 28 games of experience between the regular season and postseason on his resume, but he has shown the poise of a veteran and his teammates have full confidence in him.

There will be no shortage of talent in this series at any position in what should be a dramatic Stanley Cup Final between teams that have faced each other 35 times during the regular season in 25 years. It begins with Game 1 in Pittsburgh on Monday (5 p.m. PT; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

FORWARDS

Penguins: Crosby will always be the first name mentioned when it comes to Pittsburgh's offense, but the Penguins are loaded up front. The acquisition of Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer has paid dividends; Kessel enters the Final as Pittsburgh's leading scorer this postseason with 18 points (nine goals, nine assists) in as many games. Monday, he'll play his first game in the Final.

"You cherish it, because let me tell you, they don't come very often," Kessel said Saturday. "It's tough to get here. I'm really excited to be here. … You never think this is going to happen. You dream it. But to get a chance to play for the Stanley Cup is something you dreamt of as a kid, and it's right here.

"You realize how tough it is. It is really tough to get here. And we're here, so hopefully we can make the best of it."

Kessel is part of what has been dubbed the "HBK Line," consisting of left wing Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel. Bonino has 12 assists in 18 games, and Hagelin, one of the League's fastest skaters, has five goals and seven assists.

Crosby has spent much of his time this postseason skating with Conor Sheary and Patrick Hornqvist. Sheary has two goals in 17 games, and Hornqvist has 11 points (seven goals, four assists).

Bryan Rust is going through the playoffs for the first time, but he sure doesn't look rattled. Game 7 against Tampa Bay arguably was his best of the postseason; he scored each of Pittsburgh's goals in a 2-1 win. Rust likely will skate with Malkin and Chris Kunitz, who has 10 points in 18 games.

Pittsburgh's fourth line features two veterans, Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr, and one rookie, Tom Kuhnhackl. Cullen has scored timely goals, is solid on each end of the ice and is dreaming of hoisting the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2006, when he helped the Carolina Hurricanes win a championship.

Sharks: Marleau and Thornton will dominate the early storylines in this series, but center Joe Pavelski was born for this time of year. Pavelski has 13 goals in 18 games this postseason, including four game-winners. The first-year captain's leadership on and off ice undoubtedly is one of the biggest reasons San Jose has gotten over the hump and reached the Final.

Center Logan Couture and Thornton are first and second in the NHL in assists this postseason, with 16 and 15, respectively. Each is extremely creative and a weapon on the power play. Couture's 24 points lead the NHL.

Left wing Tomas Hertl has benefited skating with Thornton and Pavelski, and his big frame (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) could cause Murray fits over the course of the series. Hertl has five goals and five assists this postseason.

Marleau, Couture and Joonas Donskoi form a dangerous second line for the Sharks; Donskoi, who had 11 goals in 76 regular-season games, has five goals in the playoffs.

Right wing Joel Ward is doing everything Sharks general manager Doug Wilson hoped he would when he signed him as a free agent July 3. Ward has brought grit to San Jose and has 11 points in 18 playoff games. He is very familiar with Pittsburgh going back to his days with the Washington Capitals, so Ward should know what to expect in this series.

Ward's line is centered by Chris Tierney, a 21-year-old who had seven goals in 79 regular-season games and has five in the playoffs. Swedish left wing Melker Karlsson continues to be a solid third-line left wing who is responsible in each end.

Veteran forward Dainius Zubrus isn't putting up points as regularly as he once did, but he has contributed on San Jose's fourth line alongside Nick Spaling and Tommy Wingels, who leads the Sharks with 58 hits this postseason and has a knack for making the opposition take penalties.

DEFENSEMEN

Penguins: It's no secret Pittsburgh's defense begins with Letang, who is one of the top offensive defensemen in the NHL. Letang is averaging 28:46 of ice time in the playoffs and has two goals and eight assists in 17 games. But he had two points in the Eastern Conference Final, and the Penguins may need more from Letang on the score sheet against the Sharks if they hope to finish this off.

Letang's main defense partner, Brian Dumoulin, who scored his second goal in 116 career NHL regular-season and playoff games in Game 5 against the Lightning, is steady defensively and plays more than 20 minutes per game.

Olli Maatta has been inconsistent this postseason, but he played 19:34 and was plus-2 in Game 7 against Tampa Bay. The Penguins will need him to be on top of his game against the high-powered Sharks. He'll likely be paired with Ben Lovejoy, a stay-at-home defenseman who has played more than 20 minutes in each of the past three games.

Justin Schultz has a chance to provide some offense on Pittsburgh's third pair with Ian Cole, depending on how much playing time he and Cole get. Schultz played 12:50 in Game 7 against Tampa Bay, and Cole played less than 11 minutes.

The Penguins will miss veteran Trevor Daley, who will not play in the Final because of a lower-body injury.

Sharks: Burns is the star of San Jose's defense and is capable of getting on the score sheet every time he's on the ice. He enters the Final as the Sharks' third leading scorer with 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) and is averaging more than 25 minutes of ice time.

"It's hard," Burns said of the postseason journey. "I don't think people realize how small the gap is and how hard it is and how important it is to take advantage of opportunities like this."

Another big reason San Jose has made it this far is because of another terrific move by Wilson last summer: Defenseman Paul Martin, a steady presence alongside Burns, signed with the Sharks on July 1 after five seasons with the Penguins.

"He's an unbelievable partner," Burns said. "He's fun to be around off the ice. I think that's huge. Can't say enough, he's been great.

"I don't know if it's experience, I just think his personality is very -- he's very calm. I think the good thing is he reads plays really well and we've developed chemistry that I can read off him and he reads off me, and it's been working."

Burns isn't the only elite player on San Jose's back end. Marc-Edouard Vlasic has been spectacular this postseason, shutting down the opposition's top forwards one series after another. Vlasic blanketed the St. Louis Blues' Vladimir Tarasenko, who had 13 points in his first 14 games this postseason, in the Western Conference Final, helping to hold him off the score sheet until Game 6. Vlasic is paired with Justin Braun, who was plus-3 in Game 5 against St. Louis and played 22:23 in the series-clincher.

"I think what's lost a little when they're talking about Tarasenko is Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun are pretty good defensemen," DeBoer said.

Roman Polak, acquired along with Spaling from the Maple Leafs on Feb. 22, and Brenden Dillon make up San Jose's third pair. Each plays a rugged style and will attempt to wear down the Penguins forwards.

GOALTENDERS

Penguins: Nobody could have possibly envisioned last fall that Murray would be the No. 1 goaltender for Pittsburgh in its march to the Final, but here we are. Murray is 11-4 in the playoffs with a 2.21 GAA and .924 save percentage, numbers worthy of placing him in the Conn Smythe Trophy discussion should the Penguins win the Stanley Cup.

"This is my first time going through something like this, so a lot of new experiences," Murray said after Pittsburgh's Game 7 win against Tampa Bay. "But I've said it all along, I'm just trying to enjoy myself and stay in the moment and appreciate the moment, and just trying to have fun. That third period (of Game 7) was some of the most fun I've had playing hockey. It's an exciting environment."

Of course, should Murray for some reason falter during the Final, the Penguins could always turn to Fleury, who helped them win the Stanley Cup in 2009.

Sharks: Jones, 26, knew his chances of unseating Jonathan Quick as the Los Angeles Kings' No. 1 goalie were pretty slim, but he landed in San Jose last summer and has proved he is more than capable of handling the job.

"We all think he's the man," Thornton said of Jones. "We want to play for him. He's so calm. We just trust him so much. He gives us a game plan, and we follow it. That's how simple it is for us."

Jones will be backed up by James Reimer, who has played 29 minutes in the postseason, all during a 6-3 loss to St. Louis in Game 4 of the conference final.

COACHES

Penguins: Pittsburgh was 15-10-3 when general manager Jim Rutherford decided to make a change that has completely altered its season. Sullivan has brought a calmness behind the bench since arriving from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League and has the Penguins four wins from their fourth championship.

"When the coaching change was made and [Sullivan] came in, he made an immediate connection with the players and continued to keep that connection and the players bought into his style of play," Rutherford said. "Our style of play changed. We became more aggressive and quicker, and it worked."

"I know there's a lot of stories that surround this group," Sullivan said, "but the greatest story of all is the group itself."

Sharks: DeBoer has done what none of his predecessors in San Jose could do: get the Sharks to the Stanley Cup Final. Just as he did with the New Jersey Devils in 2012, DeBoer has led a group not many picked to get this far to the Final. He has his team believing and playing with an edge. The Devils lost to the Kings in six games four years ago; can DeBoer's Sharks finish the job?

"Real similar situations," said DeBoer, who is the 11th NHL coach to bring two teams to a Cup Final. "Two teams that missed the year before and their coaches either were fired or moved on, but there was a good foundation in place and just needed a little bit of a reset."

SPECIAL TEAMS

Penguins: After being in the middle of the pack during the regular season, Pittsburgh's power play is converting at 23.4 percent in the playoffs. With weapons such as Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and Letang at their disposal, the Penguins can virtually score from anywhere within the offensive zone.

Pittsburgh's penalty kill has a success rate of 83.6 percent in the playoffs, fifth in the NHL.

Sharks: San Jose's power play has improved since the regular season, when it was third in the League at 22.5 percent, and is ranked second in the NHL this postseason at 27.0 percent. If the Sharks can keep the puck in the Penguins zone and Thornton can continue to find players such as Pavelski and Marleau in the slot, their chances of winning the Cup increase dramatically.

San Jose's penalty kill has a success rate of 80.4 percent this postseason, seventh in the NHL.

SERIES CHANGERS

Penguins: Evgeni Malkin, forward -- Malkin went six games earlier this postseason without a point but is heating up at the right time. He assisted on each of Rust's goals in Game 7 and enters the Final with a five-game point streak (one goal, five assists). If Malkin is at the top of his game against the Sharks, it takes pressure off the likes of Crosby and Kessel.

Sharks: Patrick Marleau, forward -- Marleau does have 12 points in the playoffs, but four goals. His ability to drive the net and score from the slot is his bread and butter, and what better time than the Stanley Cup Final than to get back to doing what he does best? Marleau has gone six straight games without a goal. If he reverses the trend against the Penguins, it could help the Sharks win the Cup for the first time.

WILL WIN IF …

Penguins: Murray doesn't get fazed by the spotlight, and Pittsburgh continues to get contributions from all four lines. It will be vital that the Penguins get at least a split at home in the first two games; the idea of them winning this series down 2-0 when it shifts to SAP Center is far-fetched.

Sharks: San Jose's centers continue to thrive and wreak havoc on Pittsburgh's defense. This is the first trip to the Final for everyone on the roster other than Zubrus and Jones (although Jones didn't receive any playing time with Los Angeles in the 2014 Final), so it will be interesting to see how the Sharks react in Game 1.

by Brian Compton @BComptonNHL / NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

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