2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Stanley Cup Final Prospectus
WE’RE HERE. The Stanley Cup Finals are upon us, and in typical hockey fashion, at least one of the teams (in this case, both) were not expected by many to be here. This is what makes winning multiple Stanley Cups extremely difficult since expansion 50 years ago. There is so much parity in game, never mind throughout the league’s standings, that it is almost impossible to predict outcomes most of the time.
If we take a look back just since 2010, the Blackhawks weren’t the best team in the NHL in the regular season; that was Washington (as was the case this year, where the Capitals — you guessed it — choked in the middle rounds without making it to the Final).
In 2011, Boston did not have the best record or most points in the league. A couple of other teams did; most notably Washington (again, faltering before even making the Final), and the Vancouver Canucks, who won the President’s Trophy (coached by current Rangers head man, Alain Vigneault — notice some symmetry between these teams’ regular season outputs and playoff performances — who had an embarrassment of riches at goalie, but botched the situation horribly after dispatching the San Jose Sharks that season.
In 2012, one of the wackiest yet, New Jersey finished FOURTH in their own division and made it to the Final where they faced the Los Angeles Kings who finished THIRD in their division as a wild card team, as well. Vancouver once again nabbed the President’s and once again choked. Along with the St. Louis Blues, who didn’t know it yet, but had finished two points behind the Canucks with 109 points of their own, in the first of four straight first-round playoff defeats after great regular seasons, the pacesetters were gone before the Cup Finals.
In the lockout-shortened 2013, fittingly, chalk held, as the Chicago Blackhawks raced out with their stacked roster and never looked as if they were beatable clear through their second Stanley Cup victory in three seasons at that point.
The past two seasons, 2014 and 2015, the President’s Trophy jinx continued, as Boston failed to make it to the Cup Final, while the Rangers did so with a middling record, before losing in five (close) games to the Kings. In 2015, the Blackhawks struck again with a stacked roster and handled business.
However, the Capitals once again had the most points in the league, and once again faltered before even making it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Pittsburgh and San Jose looked like muddled messes to begin the season, before coaching changes and roster makeovers (Pittsburgh) took hold. San Jose’s ascent began with the return of Logan Couture off an injury that caused him to miss roughly half of the regular season. The Sharks have not looked back since, nor have the Penguins since acquiring Carl Hagelin, who has been on three teams in one year’s time. In fact, Hagelin ended his current team’s season with the game winning goal in Game 5 of the first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The ironic thing about offering prognostications about this particular Cup Final is that the earlier rounds were more difficult to assess due to so many moving parts and variables. That is not the case with this series.
STANLEY CUP FINALS
San Jose Sharks (3 Pacific) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (2 Metropolitan)
Every shift matters, every line change matters, because the neutral zone is often where the game can change with everyone attempting to manage the puck at peak efficiency. This is no time for goons to come out and play ice patrol. If you don’t have four productive lines, you do not make it this far. That said, injuries are at the forefront of this series.
Pittsburgh skated circles around the Rangers, and had the puck luck advantage against Washington. While Tampa could match the Penguins’ speed, the Lightning were unable to consistently generate anything in their offensive zone when they needed it most and were dispatched.
Pittsburgh has none of those advantages heading into this series.
For starters, Trevor Daley’s season-ending ankle injury forces more minutes upon Brian Dumoulin (he has managed them well), Olli Maatta and Ben Lovejoy (not so much). The Penguins had gap control issues against Tampa, and the Lightning did not take advantage. Someone on each of the four lines on the Sharks LIVES in front of the net in practically every shift. Then there is the prospect of Brent Burns taking off and freelancing by jumping into the zone. Kristopher Letang’s antics in prior series won’t work here. The Pens will have to be on their toes in their own zone and avoid the numerous coverage issues that they mostly got away with against Tampa.
The Sharks have all four lines rolling. They have really found something with Spaling-Tierney-Zubrus. They’ve not only altered the energy of the game, when necessary, but they’ve also been productive on the score sheet. Everyone knows Joe Thornton is one of the best passers the game has ever seen, and Joe Pavelski is generational with his ability to deflect and redirect shots in front. Add to it the versatile skating and shooting ability of Tomas Hertl, and the Sharks’ top line is going to make Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist and whoever is on Crosby’s left work every minute they are on the ice.
It will be interesting to see how the Malkin line works against the Couture line. Couture leads everyone in points in these playoffs. Malkin’s line has been relatively quiet since the Rangers series.This is going to be a pivotal match up, unless either coach opts to shuffle to get a match up they want apart from second vs. second.
The Marleau line with Joel Ward has been physical and clutch, and one would have to believe that both coaches are going to watch to do some juggling in order to take advantage of match ups. Marleau can still skate like a 22 year old, but matching up with Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin is not the match up for the Sharks’ third line, much like the Sharks’ second line is decidedly more productive and a nightmare to cover for the Penguins.
The fourth lines have both been productive (hence why both teams are here), and it is tough to predict how much of an impact either one can have because they play so few minutes.
In terms of lines, the Penguins’ third line has a decent advantage. The Sharks’ second line has a decided advantage, and the Sharks’ top line is BOTH physical and productive (unlike what the Capitals showed), as well as high on the possession chart. It will all come down to goalie play, who can get the most puck luck (or create their own luck?) and finish A+ chances when they get them. Both have shown a proclivity for doing so to this point, although the Sharks’ power play AND penalty kill have been top notch all playoffs. The Penguins’ power play was lethal against a pathetic Rangers’ penalty kill, but only middling since. Special teams will also play a large role.
Goalie play is the last thing to ignore, but in this instance, it is virtually a wash. Nearly all goalies go down into the butterfly position at the slightest hint of pressure against them. Andrei Vasilevskiy is one of the few who stood up quite often to make saves, unlike hardly any goalie since the late 80s. Martin Jones is quiet with his movements in goal. He has good size (both he and Matt Murray are 6’4″) and doesn’t give you much to shoot at. He rarely gets rattled and goes post to post without losing his net frequently. As with all butterfly technique goalies, he is prone to shots in the upper region of the net, but has absolutely stolen a couple of games in each series to this point.
Murray is similar to Jones in a few ways, but he has also shown that he can constantly be beaten high to his glove side, and by quick, cross-crease passes and shots. When he’s gotten beaten on those, he’s looked bad; although much of that is attributable to the earlier point about the Penguins’ coverage issues in their own zone. Generally, if Murray has seen the shot, he has stopped it 95% of the time. Rebound control was an issue for both goalies at times in their conference final series, and that will be worth watching as well. Murray shut down all rebounds in Games 6 and 7, as did Jones, after rebounding from a horrid performance where it appeared like he was playing a game of dodgeball in net before getting pulled in favor of James Reimer.
The Sharks are on a mission, and with Brent Burns serving as the ultimate “X” factor for this series, providing an element with which the Penguins have not had to contend thus far in the playoffs, it is difficult to pick against them at this point. Anything can happen, but since this is all about predicting, then you make a choice and stick with it.
Call: SHARKS IN 6.