They’re fast, deep, experienced and they’re full of storylines.
What makes the upcoming Stanley Cup Final so compelling is that the preceding statement applies to both the Sharks and Penguins, who meet Monday in Game 1 in Pittsburgh.
The NHL season officially began Oct. 7, but the Sharks’ and Penguins’ seasons didn’t take off until December. For San Jose, it was a matter of getting used to incoming coach Peter DeBoer’s style. Twenty-nine of the Sharks’ 46 wins this season came after Christmas.
“We struggled. Winning one, losing one, winning one, losing one,” center Joe Thornton said. “With the new coaching staff we needed to realize how we needed to play to win. Once that clicked – and that probably clicked maybe early December – we just exploded. I think that’s really when we saw the depth of this team.”
In Pittsburgh, the Penguins were languishing near the bottom of the Eastern Conference on Dec. 12 when the team fired coach Mike Johnston. He was replaced by Mike Sullivan, who challenged the talent-laden Penguins to break out of their funk.
They did. The Penguins, who ranked 28th in scoring at the time of the coaching change, rattled off 33 wins in the second half of the season and finished third in points.
The teams each won a game in their opponent’s building earlier this season. But DeBoer, who missed the Sharks’ 3-1 win in Pittsburgh on Nov. 21 due to a personal matter, noted that the squads were entirely different back then.
“They changed some things when they brought the new coach in,” he said. “They got that ball rolling in the right direction and they’ve been the best team in the league the second half of the year.”
The Sharks’ most prominent players are a pair of graybeards, Thornton and Patrick Marleau, both of whom are 36. San Jose has traveled a far greater distance in the playoffs than any other squad, and the Sharks are the only team this year to have lost a three-overtime game, which happened during their second-round series against Nashville.
Yet it’s the Sharks’ opponents who seem to keep running out of gas. They beat the Kings in five games. Nashville had nothing left by Game 7 of its second-round series, falling 5-0. The St. Louis Blues went down in six games, losing the last contest 5-2.
San Jose’s depth has been its biggest advantage, allowing the Sharks to rotate four lines throughout the playoffs.
Thornton and Marleau have received the most attention in recent days because they were the first two picks of the 1997 draft and are playing in their first Stanley Cup Final. But team captain Joe Pavelski is the NHL postseason leader in goals with 13, while Logan Couture is the playoff leader in assists with 16.
A pair of newcomers also has given the team a boost. Veteran Joel Ward has six goals, including four in the past two games. Rookie Joonas Donskoi, playing on the speedy second line with Couture and Marleau, has four goals and nine points.
The Penguins, meanwhile, in the East have mirrored the Sharks.
They dispatched the New York Rangers in five games, then beat the Presidents’ Cup-winning Washington Capitals in six. The Tampa Bay Lightning took them to seven games, but were outshot 39-17 in the finale on Thursday.
One of San Jose’s storylines has been its ability to shut down the opponent’s leading goal scorer – first the Kings’ Tyler Toffoli, then the Predators’ Filip Forsberg, and finally the Blues’ Vladimir Tarasenko, whose two goals at the end of the Game 6 blowout were his only scores in the series.
In the finals, The Sharks’ attention will turn to Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who finished tied for seventh in the league in goals during the regular season.
DeBoer called Crosby “a world-class player with a fourth-line work ethic.”
“And I think that’s what makes him special,” he said. “I think that’s what separates him. And we’ve got to make sure we’re not getting outworked by him. Because if you are, then he becomes very dangerous.”
Crosby has six goals so far in the playoffs, but the fast-skating Penguins have shown that they can win without him on the score sheet. Phil Kessel leads the team in the playoffs in both goals (nine) and points (18) while Patric Hornqvist has seven goals. Rookie Bryan Rust had two goals in the series-clinching win against Tampa Bay while Evgeni Malkin added 27 goals in just 57 regular-season games this year.
“That’s how you get to this point – by having some depth and having some guys that can play in different roles,” Pavelski said. “Their team is spread out with a lot of skill up and down. You just have to be on your toes.”