SERIES STARTS: Monday, 8 p.m. ET, in Pittsburgh.
THE PENGUINS WIN IF… Pittsburgh’s game is built on speed and they have plenty of it. The Penguins have been most successful during the post-season when games have opened up, and that’s exactly the style they’ll want to play in the final. Coach Mike Sullivan’s Penguins showed during the Eastern Conference final that when given the opportunity to counter-attack, each line packs enough punch to make the opposition pay. And that scoring depth will be key if Pittsburgh wants its second Stanley Cup in the past eight seasons, especially against a deep Sharks defense. The type of heroics displayed by
Bryan Rust in Games 6 and 7 of the conference final is what championship teams are built on. In fact, the 2009 Cup-winning Penguins had nearly identical contributions from Max Talbot, though his pair of goals came in the Cup-deciding game. Production from players such as Rust,
Conor Sheary and
Tom Kuhnhackl could be what turns this series in Pittsburgh’s favor. Depth contributions alone won’t be enough to carry the Penguins to a Cup, though. But with the way Pittsburgh’s offense has been clicking, it’s hard to imagine Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin fail to make a difference in the series. The line that will probably give the Sharks the most fits, though, will be the HBK line of
Nick Bonino and
Carl Hagelin. Because Pittsburgh can, and likely will, throw Crosby and Malkin on separate lines, the Sharks defense will be thinned out — and possibly out of gas — by the time the HBK line hits the ice. That could put a huge stress on San Jose’s defense, and they haven’t seen a team able to attack in waves like Pittsburgh can. And the Sharks may not have seen a goaltender quite like
Matt Murray yet, either. For most rookie netminders, there would be some questions about how they would hold up in their first Stanley Cup final, but that doesn’t seem to be a concern about Penguins freshman Murray. The 21-year-old has been outstanding throughout the post-season. After being swapped out for
Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5 of the conference final and then being reinserted into the lineup for Game 6, it would have been understandable had Murray been jittery. Instead, he stopped 44 of the next 47 shots he faced over Games 6 and 7 and helped the Penguins capture an Eastern Conference crown. He’s ready for the big stage.
THE SHARKS WIN IF... It took 3,093 games -- regular season and playoffs combined -- for
Joe Thornton and
Patrick Marleau to make it to the Stanley Cup final. And after all that time, both veteran stars will play big roles in helping the Sharks' chase of the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Thornton will enter the series with a much bigger target on him. The 36-year-old is in the midst of an incredible campaign, and his playoff performance has been an extension of his strong regular season play. Through 18 post-season games, he has three goals and 18 points — the best playoff production of his career — and his vision and playmaking ability have turned the Sharks’ top power play unit into a lethal bunch this spring. Playing alongside
Joe Pavelski and
Tomas Hertl, Thornton has shown he still has game-changing ability, and he’s certain to draw the attention of Pittsburgh’s
Kris Letang and the top defensive unit. As for Marleau, he’s been quieter during the post-season, but effective nevertheless. The final could be his chance to make his biggest impact, though. With the focus that will be on the Sharks’ top unit of Thornton, Pavelski and Hertl, Marleau’s line alongside the red-hot
Logan Couture might get the chance to matchup against the Penguins’ second and third defense pairings. The weakest part of a strong Pittsburgh roster is their defensive depth, and if Marleau and Couture get the opportunity to play against
Ian Cole and
Justin Schultz, it could be costly for the Penguins. As has been the case for the past two rounds, the Sharks’ power play is going to need to keep up its scoring ways. With the man advantage, San Jose is scoring at a 27 percent clip. That means if the Penguins parade to the penalty box, San Jose is going to make Pittsburgh pay. If a game gets chippy or the two sides are trading minor penalties, that should tilt things in the Sharks’ favor, so don’t be shocked if San Jose isn’t afraid to push the limits to try and draw the ire of the Penguins. The Sharks’ defensive depth is also going to play a factor.
Brent Burns has been fantastic, but so have
Paul Martin and
Justin Braun. The one area where San Jose has a clear advantage is on the blueline. If games turn into defensive battles, that plays into the Sharks’ hands. Goaltender
Martin Jones showed he could win goaltending duels against St. Louis'
Brian Elliott, and now Jones will attempt to outplay Penguins youngster Murray.
Brian Dumoulin isn’t a household name, but the 24-year-old should be getting some extra attention as the Stanley Cup final gets underway. He’s been skating with Letang on Pittsburgh’s top defense pairing and hasn’t looked at all out of place. It might be a big ask of Dumoulin to help slow down the Sharks’ top line of Thornton, Pavelski and Hertl, but if Dumoulin and Letang can be successful against San Jose’s top trio, it will go a long way in helping Pittsburgh to a Stanley Cup victory. The Penguins lack defensive depth, but the more Dumoulin impresses, the less concern there seems to be about Pittsburgh’s blueline.
SHARKS: Here’s a list of players Marc-Edouard Vlasic has shut down this post-season:
Milan Lucic and
Jeff Carter. Those six players — all solid offensive contributors — combined for three goals at 5-on-5 against Vlasic and he has only been on the ice for seven goals against at 5-on-5 all post-season. Whichever line he matches up against, he has the ability to shut it down. If that’s Crosby, Malkin or even the HBK line, Vlasic is a defensive weapon the Penguins can’t match.
THN’S PICK: SHARKS in six games.