An entire NHL Season has led us to this moment. The 2016 Stanley Cup Final is here at last! The Championship round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs will see the Western Conference Champion San Jose Sharks take on the Eastern Conference Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The series begins on Monday, May 30 and can be seen on NBC and NBCSN.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Season Recap
It has been a tale of two seasons for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Before Christmas, the Penguins couldn’t have looked any worse. Out of the playoffs and seeing their big guns struggling, the Penguins made a coaching change, firing Mike Johnston and appointing Mike Sullivan.
The hire of Sullivan was a huge turning point for the Penguins. Sullivan completely remodeled the Penguins’ bottom-6 forwards and depth defensemen, while also adapting the team’s strategy to one more conducive to a team that has so many skill players.
After Sullivan took over, the Penguins began to look unbeatable. Stars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury began playing like they were capable of playing, and the team finally had confidence for the first time in years. They broke their hex of losing to the Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, and Washington Capitals and ultimately bested the Tampa Bay Lightning in 7 games in the Eastern Conference Finals to earn a spot in the Finals.
San Jose Sharks: Season Recap
It was a much different sea tale for the Sharks this year, as the Sharks returned back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 and finally cashed in. After years of playoff ineptitude, the Sharks are going to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in their history.
New coach Pete DeBoer turned the Sharks around into one of the West’s most dangerous squads. However, they flew somewhat under the radar despite their 98 points. Teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, St. Louis Blues, and Dallas Stars were all seen as more competitive than the Sharks, yet San Jose continued to believe in themselves.
All of the Sharks’ big names had excellent seasons, perhaps reborn under DeBoer and made hungry by the constant doubt thrown on them by outsiders. Joe Thornton had a renaissance season (82 points), Joe Pavelski scored 38 goals, and Brent Burns scored almost 30 goals as a defenseman. Maybe most impressively, the Sharks got at least 10 goals from 9 different players, one of the highest totals in the league. And while Logan Couture missed parts of the regular season, he has led the league in postseason scoring.
Martin Jones was also found to be a dependable goalkeeper in his first full year as a starter; he started 65 games and won 37, posting a 2.27 GAA and .918 save percentage. He has been even better in the playoffs.
The Sharks blitzkrieged the Los Angeles Kings in Round 1, before outlasting the pesky Nashville Predators in Round 2 and the tough St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference Finals. The Sharks are coming into the Cup on an all-time high.
Pittsburgh Penguins: X-Factor
Depth. Kessel, Crosby, and Malkin are of course leading the Pens in postseason scoring, but the contributions from rookies like Matt Murray, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, and Tom Kuhnhackl, as well as depth players Carl Hagelin and Matt Cullen has been the difference for the Penguins.
It is a given that Kessel, Crosby, and Malkin will score. But if the middle-6 can score with regularity and Murray can stay on this goaltending high, the Penguins will be gunning for the Cup.
San Jose Sharks: X-Factor
Consistency. The Sharks have just as much high-profile talent as the Penguins, but they can fall into the trap of being streaky. While everyone was firing on all cylinders in Round 1, the Sharks let their collective feet off the gas at times in Rounds 2 and 3.
The Sharks have the roster to compete with the Penguins, they just cannot afford to slip up for even one game.
This is as close to a 50-50 Cup as we’ve had in a while. Both the Penguins and Sharks each have real shots to win the Stanley Cup, but as usual it will come down to which team stumbles up first. Given that the Penguins have home-ice advantage and the experience, I think it’ll be Sidney Crosby’s Penguins hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup when it’s all said and done.