The Eastern Conference Final against the speedy Tampa Bay Lightning went to seven games for the Pittsburgh Penguins. But thanks to hard work from top to bottom, they emerged victorious. Now, starting today on Memorial Day in Pittsburgh, the Penguins who sat in 11th in the East on Christmas Day 2015 will host Game 1 of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final against the San Jose Sharks. So what can we expect from this fourth and final round of NHL playoffs action? Here are the key matchups to keep an eye on in this, the series for all the marbles.
Phil Kessel vs. Joe Pavelski
Phil Kessel has never been this far in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He’s only played in 40 playoff contests with the lion’s share of them before this year coming in 2009 with the Boston Bruins. Following the Penguins Game 7 victory he couldn’t even come up with words to describe how he felt. Joe Pavelski has also never been this far. The career long Shark, Pavelski has never played more than the 18 games he’s played so far this spring. Both players are leading the way offensively on teams with plenty of firepower. One of these two men will likely win the Conn Smythe (unless Martin Jones or Matt Murray steals the show) and the other will still get to skate for Lord Stanley, achieving a childhood dream.
Kessel leads the Penguins in points and goals with 18 points in 18 games. His point per game production level puts him in some elite company, while his nine goals are good for tops on the team, third overall in the NHL playoffs and a personal best he’s still setting. On the other side, Pavelski is second on the Sharks in scoring with 22 points and leads the NHL postseason with 13 goals. Both have had the playoffs of their lives and whichever one, and the line they play on, can be more productive will probably say a lot about which team wins.
The First Time Franchise vs. The Return of the Kid
One of the biggest storylines in this NHL postseason is San Jose and how the team that never has finally might. Not once has the team in teal been a Western Conference Champion and as such they’ve never won a Cup. This is the Sharks 24th year of existence and first time in the Cup Finals; the Penguins reached the Cup Finals for the first time in the franchise’s 23rd year.
The Penguins, on the other hand, have seen their fair share of personal strife. From the concussion and neck injury that almost ended Sidney Crosby’s playing career to Kris Letang’s stroke, Olli Maatta’s cancer and Pascal Dupuis’ blood clots. The term “the island of misfit toys” has been used to describe Justin Schultz, Trevor Daley, Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino and some of the team’s other acquisitions. Teams gave up on these guys but the Penguins didn’t. Now, this perennial playoff just-missed-it and a ragtag group of comeback kids and misfits will see their dreams come true.
Watching these two groups and the heart and desire they’ve brought from day one of the postseason duke it out will be something special. Both teams have tons to play for. Both have something to prove. The Sharks want to show that they’re not the “other” California team. The Penguins want to overcome all the adversity to be kings of the mountain. This is something that can’t be quantified in numbers but will definitely have an effect on the series.
18 Miles Deep vs. 18 Miles Wide
The San Jose Sharks only have three players on their postseason roster who have played less than the team’s maximum 18 games. Of those, only one has dressed for less than ten. The Penguins only have six players who have dressed in all of their 18 playoff games. Meanwhile, four of the Pittsburgh Penguins have played in less than ten games.
As for scoring? The Sharks have three 20-point scorers, but they also have two players who have dressed all 18 matches and have 0 points. While the flightless birds lowest point getter of those who have dressed all 18 has 2 points. Only players who have dressed in two games or less have been kept completely off the scoreboard.
It will be interesting to see how the Penguins, with their multi-layered attack will handle the Sharks with their strong defense. It will be even more interesting to see how the Sharks and their ever-so-slightly more top-heavy scoring handle the Penguins and their quickly rolling four lines.
The Closing Window vs. The Closed Window
For some time there has been this idea in hockey that with the salary cap there was a window. A window during which a team better win the Stanley Cup or their marquee players would get too old and they wouldn’t have enough youth to supplant them because of money invested in those big names. In 2014, people wondered if the Penguins window was closing quickly and if Crosby and Malkin would have to live with just one Stanley Cup and two Final appearances in their primes. Meanwhile, just this past off-season people thought the Sharks needed a major rebuild. They should sell at the draft and get what they could for their captains. Their chances and time to win with their core of Thornton, Pavelski, Marleau, Burns and Couture were over.
When these two teams sat in 11th in the East and 13th in the West around the turn of the calendar, no one thought they would be here. They were too old. Their time was over and their windows were certainly not open for 2016. And while the idea that a team can only win within a certain timeframe isn’t likely to be tossed out the window this summer, it certainly will be challenged. These two teams both prove handily that you can win at any time if you find the right mix of players, coach, and desire.
Brian Dumoulin vs. Paul Martin
Paul Martin was an important part of the Pittsburgh Penguins from 2010 to 2015. The city of Pittsburgh and Martin were both very sad when he left last summer to join the San Jose Sharks on a multi-year deal. Problem was, the Penguins couldn’t offer Martin that multi-year deal because they had Brian Dumoulin and Olli Maatta both growing into the type of roles he filled. Now, this series will place the kid who has earned what used to be Martin’s role on the Penguins against Martin himself. Dumoulin spent his first full year with the NHL Penguins this year and, much like Martin in his first few seasons, did not score a regular season goal.
The Maine native did put up 16 assists while dressing in 79 games for the Penguins though. This was good for second all time in franchise history for a player who did not score a goal. But what Dumoulin and Martin both really bring isn’t scoring touch. It’s the defensive eyes and know-how to counterbalance their more offensive-minded partners (Letang or Daley for Dumoulin and Burns for Martin).
So far this playoffs, their numbers offensively are remarkably similar. Dumoulin has 1 G–6 A good for 7 points in 18 games with two penalty minutes. Martin on the other hand has 0 G–5 A good for 5 points in 18 games with two penalty minutes. Both players also tend to fly under the radar so the matchup will be especially fun to see who they play against. Will they see the ice at the same time, especially given their defense partners, or will they pull a lot of opposite shifts? Who knows. But this underrated matchup will certainly add another layer of interest to what will be a fun series.