2016 NHL Stanley Cup Finals – Pittsburgh Penguins vs San Jose Sharks
That was a gem of an Eastern Conference Finals we had between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning. The only thing that would have made it better in Game 7. It’s a little surprising that the Lightning couldn’t close the series out in Game 6 or Game 7. They played so bad in the 1st and 2nd period in Game 6 and the 2nd period in Game 7 though. Those stretches were worse than the usual momentum swings in this series. The Lightning have also been so clutch in Game 7’s of late you thought they could pull it anyway. But injuries and back to back long playoff runs will doom you in. I don’t think Steven Stamkos should have played. He was pretty rusty in the game and took away shifts from a player that could have contributed more. Good for him for trying, however. That game winning goal will haunt Andrei Vasilevskiy for awhile. The bounce off the boards was funny and hard to judge but you had hope he would have been able to have covered it. His positioning was good but he didn’t completely seal the post with his body. Just a terrible way to lose a series.
At any rate, on to what should be a high scoring and highly entertaining NHL Stanley Cup Finals between two teams with something to prove.
M2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. W3 San Jose Sharks
Season Series: 1-1
Playoff Series History: None
What We Learned: Sharks have learned from past playoff mistakes and are deep. Penguins are learning to win with role players and how to eek out crucial Game 6 and Game 7 wins.
Stars to Watch: Both of these teams have three lines that can really score. Both have ten players that are in double digits in playoff scoring. The Sharks have three players with at least 20 points though. The Penguins, and no other team for that matter, have none. Joe Pavelski leads all players in goals with 13. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are both still struggling but they are still key. But going up against a great Sharks defense isn’t going to help matters. Crosby also has a -2. Patrick Hornqvist has a -5. No key Sharks players have any minuses. Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin have also cooled. Luckily, Phil Kessel has not and he is their leading scorer. Pavelski, Logan Couture and Brent Burns are the players that drive the Sharks. They have been at the top of their respective games. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau aren’t as significant but they are still important. Tomas Hertl also pitches in with some key moments.
X-Factor: It’s Joel Ward versus Bryan Rust to see who scores more crucial goals. Rust single-handily carried the Penguins into this round because, if it wasn’t for him, the Penguins wouldn’t have won Game 7. He’s scored three goals in the last two Penguins games that they needed to win. He has five overall in the playoffs. He’s basically come out of nowhere to be a huge piece to this Penguins team. Coincidentally, Joel Ward scored four goals in the last two games for the Sharks against the Blues. Joel Ward always scores a key goal or two in every series and has six goals overall. The other factor is defense. I’ve harped on the Penguins defense many times. It was better against the Lightning but it’s still not where it needs to be. The Sharks defense is one of their biggest strengths. They check well, force you outside and quickly send you out of their zone. Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are a way better pairing than anything the Penguins have. So the Sharks definitely have a big advantage in that department.
Goalie Problem: I’m assuming Matt Murray starts in net for the Penguins. Both Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury are at about the same level. However, Fleury still has rust. Neither of their confidences seem very high and both don’t seem impenetrable at the moment. For the Sharks, Martin Jones worries me. In Game 5 he looked really shaky and it was a good thing he wasn’t tested much. He didn’t have to make 30 saves at all during the Blues series. It will be key for the Sharks to do the same in this series. He is the Sharks weakest link. With the offensive firepower in this series, they are the top two scoring teams in the playoffs, these goalies will be tested and it might not be pretty.
Fun Fact: Over the last decade, the team with the most playoff scorers (or tied for the most, as was the case in three playoffs) in the top five wins the Stanley Cup. The Sharks have four and the Penguins have none. So take that as an omen or don’t.
Prediction: I said that I didn’t want to discredit the Blues series wins but I felt like the teams they beat, beat themselves more than the Blues beat them. Except for the Rangers series, I feel the same way about the Penguins. The Capitals was more of a mixed bag but the Lightning definitely didn’t play as good as they could have, as mentioned at the top of the column, and really beat themselves in Game 6 and 7 but not really showing up and cracking under the pressure. Because the Lightning could very well be here right now instead. Defensively, the Penguins worry me. Kris Letang continued to be unhinged and had a really bad game in Game 5. The rest of the defense is the usual mixed bag. What worries me if I’m the Penguins is everyone on the team, besides Rust and Kessel, is struggling right now. That isn’t where you want to be going into a Stanley Cup Finals. The Sharks are relentless and never quit. The only bad game they played against the Blues, they still managed to bounce back and score three goals in the 3rd period. The Sharks only weakness is goaltending but it’s not that bad. But the series does hinge on how well Jones plays. If he plays well they will win, if he doesn’t they won’t. With the Sharks defense, and the Penguins struggles, I think he’ll play decent enough for the Sharks to hoist the Stanley Cup for the very first time. Sharks in six.