PITTSBURGH – This thing is going six or seven games. That's the consensus among hockey pundits. The Stanley cup final between the San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins is so evenly matched that few if anyone can imagine a short series.
Both teams have tremendous star power at forward. Both teams have steady, confident young goaltenders. Both teams get contributions from all four lines. Both teams have a Clydesdale No. 1 defenseman.
There appears to be one distinct edge in this matchup on paper, however. The Sharks have the deeper, more experienced defense corps. Paul Martin and Brent Burns have been among the NHL's very best tandems all season. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun have formed a strong second pair. Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak are no slouches, either.
The Pittsburgh Penguins lost Trevor Daley to a broken ankle. They have all-world blueliner Kris Letang but, let's face it, it's a motley crew after that. Ben Lovejoy has a decent amount of playoff experience from his first tour with the Penguins before he was traded, but Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, Ian Cole and Justin Schultz entered the 2015-16 post-season with 25 career playoff games combined. Now they face a deadly Sharks team that boasted three of the NHL's top 11 scorers in the regular season in Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns. In the post-season, San Jose has the top three point-getters in Logan Couture, Pavelski and Burns, and Thornton ranks sixth. Their power play sizzles at 27 percent for the playoffs.
“We go through a pre-scout, that’s for sure," Maatta said. "They definitely have a good four lines. It’s not only the first and second line. They’re really dangerous all around, but definitely their first and second lines are elite guys, and we have to be careful playing against them.”
Will the Sharks, blessed with a deep and star-studded forward group, exploit the matchup against a relatively faceless Penguins D-corps? Lovejoy expects them to try. He's open about how deadly the Sharks power play is and how much of a challenge it will be to stop its rapid puck movement. He knows the Sharks' heavier forwards like Joel Ward will try to impose their will on the forecheck.
"Every team wants to come at our defensemen and be physical," Lovejoy said. "They want to chip pucks behind us and make us go to work to prove we’ll take the hits, that we’ll go back and retrieve pucks. It’s a game plan that we’re going to try to do to them and they’re going to do to us. So we’ve got to be ready for it.”
Swagger would be too strong of a word, but there was a sense of confidence and something to prove among the Penguins blueliners Monday, hours before Game 1 of the final. They faced the NHL's No. 2, No. 7 and No. 12 offenses so far in the playoffs, so the idea of a high-octane opponent doesn't make them curl up in the fetal position and suck their thumbs.
Still, it's one thing to say you can stop the Sharks. It's another to do it. They had three players, Thornton, Pavelski and Burns, play at a Hart-Trophy level this season, and Couture has elevated his play to elite status this spring. Even if Pittsburgh's no-name D-men talk the talk, can they back it up? How, specifically, can they do it?
One problem to overcome is Pavelski's versatility. He has a good shot, a great one-timer, and there's arguably no player in the world better at tipping and redirecting pucks today. Maatta suggests the key is a five-man defensive effort, which includes forwards choking off the Sharks' point men so they can't fire off the seeing-eye shots Pavelski loves to deflect.
Cole doesn't think keying on any one player necessarily helps, no matter how formidable that player may be.
“I don’t think we play a system where we’re like, 'Oh, we’re playing Alex Ovechkin, we really need to have one guy out there who stands next to him the whole game,' " Cole said. "We defend well as a team, we defend well in layers, and we can defend well through all four forward lines and all three defensive pairs. That’s how we’re built. We do a really good job of it.That’s how we’re able to keep that pace up throughout the course of a 60-if-not-more-minute game with overtime now in the playoffs.
"It’s something we’re really good at, defending as a team, and trying to key on one guy or two guys might be a mistake. You’re aware of them, you know when they’re on the ice, you know they’re dangerous, but I don’t think you need to change the whole game plan based on a couple players.”
So far, the results reflect Cole's assessment. A Daley-less Pittsburgh team held Tampa Bay to just 17 shots in a 2-1 Game 7 victory to close out the Eastern Conference final, with no Lightning player besting two shots. The defense-by-committee strategy has taken the Penguins this far. But the Sharks are on a whole other level. This is the biggest challenge yet, by far.
“We’re trying to go out and win every shift," Lovejoy said. "We know we’re not big-name defensemen. We’re trying to do everything we can to have our team be successful. And guys are excited for the challenge tonight.”
A parting word of advice to the plucky Penguin defensemen: don't take any penalties.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin