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Stanley Cup Finals Preview: Sharks vs. Penguins

By: Andrew McGill

It’s the San Jose Sharks making their first-ever appearance in the Stanley Cup finals against the traditional powerhouse Pittsburgh Penguins, which are actually making their first finals appearance since 2009. And it starts on Monday night.

Both teams ran through some of their respective conferences heavyweights in order to get here and it’s a final that seem rather surprising in most people’s eyes. Both teams feature very, young goaltenders that have shown they deserve to be here.

Sidney Crosby has won just about every award there is, and a second Stanley Cup would put him in the conversation as one of the greatest of all time.

Sidney Crosby has won just about every award there is, and a second Stanley Cup would put him in the conversation as one of the greatest of all time.

Matt Murray came into the playoffs as a backup behind Jeff Zatkoff, as Marc-Andre Fleury was unable to start due to a concussion. Since the playoffs began Fleury has returned, and started, but looked very average. Who starts for the Pens will be something to watch throughout the series, although Coach Mike Sullivan clearly thinks Murray gives them the better opportunity to win, as he was named Murray starter for Game 1.

Murray has a .924 save percentage through 15 games so far in the playoffs, that’s pretty good considering the just-turned-22-year-old spent most of the year in the AHL.

In the other end, Martin Jones has put up very similar numbers with a .919 save percentage through 18 games. This was Jones first full season as a starter, after spending two seasons backing up Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles. He’s proven that he’s a valuable commodity for the Sharks in net during a crucial stretch.

He’s received a lot of help from the formidable Sharks’ defensive core. Obviously Brent Burns is a freak with 20 points in 18 games and he’s a bona fide number one D-man. And after Burns they don’t get any softer, with Paul Martin, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun. Unfortunately, after that their depth takes a dive off a cliff, which could come back to a hunt them against the Penguins deep offense.

The Penguins roll out four lines that all have a balanced mix of youth, experience, speed and skill. They are so deep offensively, in fact they are so balanced that Evgeni Malkin is centering the third line with Chris Kunitz and Bryan Rust. It’s very tough to keep up with the Penguins line up with so many scoring threats on the ice constantly.

Despite minimal honors, Joe Pavelski is one of the best players in the league, and a championship would make up for every honor he's missed out on.

Despite minimal honors, Joe Pavelski is one of the best players in the league, and a championship would make up for every honor he’s missed out on.

The Pens defense is another story. They took a hit when they lost Trevor Daley for the rest of the playoffs, but still have their number one guy in Kris Letang, who is sure to get under everyone’s skin. After him however, their defense isn’t anything special with a lot of depth guys. Yet, thanks mostly to Matt Murray, the Penguins are still only giving up 2.39 goals per game in the playoffs.

The Sharks offense exhibits just as much depth that has a mix of just about everything from size to speed to toughness and skill. Joe Pavelski leads the all players in the playoffs in goals, with 13. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau should be playing their asses off as this is their first career Stanley Cup appearances in their eighteen seasons in the league, oddly enough they were drafted back-to-back, first and second overall picks, in the 1996 draft.

The core of this Sharks team has shown they have motivation after a couple years of embarrassment. After giving up a three game lead to the Los Angeles Kings in the 2014 playoffs, they missed them all together last season and hit a new low. Now they are here to prove that they can get the monkey off their backs after being one of the teams that had a reputation for disappointing playoff runs.

The Penguins last made it to the finals in 2009, when they defeated the Detroit Red Wings in seven games. Most of that core is still intact from that team — Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Fleury — But a lot of the pieces around them have changed, like Coach Sullivan who turned the Penguins around from their slow start at the beginning of the season.

This will truly be a thrilling final to watch because of the offensive upside both teams boast. The Pans and Sharks have been averaging well over 3 goals per game this postseason and with the plethora of inexperienced goaltending and lack of defensive depth, it could prove to be a shootout. For casual fans that complain there’s not enough scoring in hockey, this matchup should provide plenty of it in both ends. Don’t expect this series to go any less than six games with both teams providing plenty of up-tempo play.

Prediction: Penguins in 7 Games

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Andrew McGill

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