Bryan Rust scored two goals on Thursday night and led the Pittsburgh Penguins to their fifth appearance in the Stanley Cup Final in their history. Waiting for them is the Western Conference champion San Jose Sharks. The Sharks, led by former Devils bench boss Pete DeBoer, will be making their very first trip to the NHL’s final playoff round.
The Penguins have to be seen as the favorites heading into the Stanley Cup Final. They possess the firepower in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. But as Rust showed tonight, Pittsburgh’s scoring power is a lot deeper than just those three.
San Jose is just as talented up front. Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns are 1-2-3 in scoring in the playoffs. Joel Ward, who scored two goals in the conference clinching game six, is a proven clutch player in the playoffs.
One of the keys, then, is defense. The team that can shut down the other side’s offensive heavyweights will have the edge in the series. It is a cliché about defense winning championships for good reason.
Burns has become one of the best defensemen in the game (who, by the way, can play forward if needed) and San Jose has former longtime Devil Dainius Zubrus on the team. He has played under DeBoer before and could play a key veteran role for the Sharks.
The Pens boast guys like Kris Letang on the backend, a steadying force on the blueline, for sure.
The Pens have skill and the momentum on their side. They are the ones coming off of the game seven victory over Tampa Bay, a game in which they won 2-1.
San Jose has not played since Wednesday and will not play again until Monday when the Finals get underway in Pittsburgh.
And that is another edge that the Penguins have: home ice. Both San Jose’s SAP Center and Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center can get loud, giving the home team a huge advantage beyond just last change. San Jose will be rocking when they host their first-ever Stanley Cup Final game on Saturday, June 4. The crowd can create just as much of a home ice advantage for the teams and give them a boost. Take the crowd out of a game as the road team and you give yourself a better chance at winning the game.
The most important element going into any NHL playoff series is, of course, the goaltending. Pittsburgh has settled on Matt Murray in these playoffs, and he has been phenomenal. He currently boasts a 2.21 goals against average and a .924 save percentage to go along with one shutout. In a pinch, they could always go to the veteran Marc-Andre Fleury, who has won a Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh before, but who has historically struggled in the playoffs too.
San Jose’s Martin Jones, in this playoff season, has a 2.12 goals against average and a .919 save percentage with three shutouts. If they need to, veteran James Reimer is the Sharks’ backup and is a very capable NHL goaltender that has started in the past for Toronto.
Both teams had a tough road to get here. San Jose vanquished the two-time Cup champ Kings in five and had hard fought series against the Predators that went seven and the Blues that went six. Pittsburgh eliminated the Rangers in five; the regular season’s best team, the Capitals, in six and the very determined defending conference champ Lightning in seven.
Both teams have earned their spot here and both teams are just four wins from getting to hoist the Stanley Cup. Both of these teams have overcome a lot of adversity to get here. Remember back in October and November when the Pens were seemingly in disarray and Crosby was not scoring and Malkin was misquoted as saying the team hated each other? Well, after the coaching change to Mike Sullivan they got very much back on track and are now playing for the Stanley Cup.
Likewise, the San Jose Sharks seemingly could not win a game at home during the regular season and seemed to be an afterthought to their California cousins as the third seed out of the Pacific Division. They, too, have righted the ship and are now playing for the Stanley Cup.
Can the Pens hoist their fourth Stanley Cup in the team’s 49-year history and their first since 2009? Or will the Sharks claim Lord Stanley for the first time in their 25-year history?
Congratulations to both teams for getting this far and it should be fun to see how it all ends.