Sharks vs Penguins: Preview of Game 1 of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistMay 29, 2016

Sharks vs Penguins: Preview of Game 1 of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The 2016 Stanley Cup Final pits the Eastern Conference champion, the Pittsburgh Penguins, against the Western Conference champion, the San Jose Sharks. It's the Penguins' first trip to the Final since 2009, while the Sharks are pursuing their first title in franchise history. 

    This preview of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final examines how the Penguins and Sharks match up against each other. We'll compare their goaltending, defensive corps, scoring and special teams. We will also explore role players worth watching and key storylines.  

    Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts in the comments section below. 

The Penguins' Road to the Final

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    The Pittsburgh Penguins needed just five games to eliminate the New York Rangers in the opening round of the 2016 NHL playoffs. Rookie goaltender Matt Murray stepped up in a big way, and with the series tied at a game apiece, he backstopped his club to three straight victories.

    In the second round, the Penguins bounced the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in six games. Murray outdueled Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, and the Penguins offense was carried by the "HBK Line" of left wing Carl Hagelin, center Nick Bonino and right wing Phil Kessel

    The Eastern Conference Final saw the Penguins overcome a 3-2 series deficit to eliminate the defending conference champion, the Tampa Bay Lightning, in seven games. Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby silenced his critics with three game-winning goals, and center Evgeni Malkin played a solid two-way game.

The Sharks' Road to the Final

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    In the opening round, the San Jose Sharks avenged their 2014 first-round collapse against the Los Angeles Kings by eliminating the latter in five games. Captain Joe Pavelski led the way with five goals. Starting goalie Martin Jones got the better of his former team with help from his shot-blocking defense.

    The Sharks overcame the ghosts of playoff failures past in Round 2 to eliminate the determined Nashville Predators in seven games. Pavelski had another strong performance, defenseman Brent Burns made his presence felt at both ends of the ice and center Logan Couture collected 11 points. 

    In the Western Conference Final, the Sharks needed six games to defeat the St. Louis Blues and earn their first conference title. Jones posted two shutouts in the series. The shutdown pairing of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun held Blues star Vladimir Tarasenko off the score sheet for all but one game. 

The Goaltenders

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    This series features two goaltenders playing in their first Stanley Cup Final as starters. 

    Matt Murray of the Pittsburgh Penguins emerged as one of the big stories in the 2016 playoffs. The 22-year-old rookie played a significant role in his club's march to the Stanley Cup Final. He's second in wins (11), third in save percentage (.924) and fourth in goals-against average (2.22).

    Murray struggled at times in the Conference Final and was replaced in Game 5 by Marc-Andre Fleury. However, he returned to backstop the Penguins to wins in Games 6 and 7. He's now firmly entrenched as their starting goalie. 

    Unlike Murray, Martin Jones of the San Jose Sharks has been to the Final before. He was Jonathan Quick's understudy during the Los Angeles Kings' championship run in 2014. Throughout the 2016 postseason, he's played like a seasoned veteran.

    Jones leads all playoff goalies in wins (12) and shutouts (3). He's also third in goals-against average (2.12), and his .919 save percentage ranks sixth. He's steadily improved as the playoffs have progressed, showing the ability to bounce back from a rough outing. 

The Defense

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    A strong defense is crucial for any successful championship run in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It's one reason why the Sharks and Penguins have reached this stage. 

    Overall, the Sharks appear to have the edge in defensive depth. They've given up the second-fewest shots per game (27.1), while the Penguins are ninth with 29.7.

    With his big beard and puck-moving skills, Brent Burns receives most of the attention among the Sharks defensemen. He's the leading scorer among playoff rearguards and sits third among the top scorers.

    Marc-Edouard Vlasic is second in ice time among Sharks blueliners. He and Justin Braun are a strong shutdown pairing. In the previous rounds, they contained scorers such as Tyler Toffoli of the Los Angeles Kings, Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators and Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues.

    Former Penguin Paul Martin rounds out the Sharks' top four defenders. He provides years of skill and experience. 

    For the Penguins, Kris Letang is the linchpin of their blue line. He's their top scoring defenseman (10 points), and he leads the club in ice time.

    Brian Dumoulin has established himself as a reliable defensive blueliner. Ben Lovejoy has also been employed in a shutdown role. Younger defensemen Olli Maatta and Justin Schultz are also seeing a fair share of ice time.

    Trevor Daley was enjoying a solid postseason performance until a broken ankle indefinitely sidelined him during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final. His absence in this series could play a part in its outcome.

The Scorers

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    Both the Penguins and Sharks are loaded with scoring. 

    While the Sharks lead the playoffs with 63 goals, the Penguins aren't far behind them (58). If the top scorers on both clubs play up to expectations, this could be an entertaining series.

    Penguins stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both have 15 points, but they were inconsistent through the first two rounds. Against the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final, Crosby sniped three game-winning goals. In the final five games of that series, Malkin collected six points.

    Much of the Penguins offense came from the "HBK Line" of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel. With nine goals and 18 points, Kessel leads all Penguins scorers. Bonino is tied with Crosby and Malkin (15 points), and Hagelin is three behind them with 12. Patric Hornqvist sits second behind Kessel with seven goals.

    The Sharks, meanwhile, were dominant through all three rounds. Forwards Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski and defenseman Brent Burns are the playoffs' top three scorers. Center Joe Thornton is tied for fifth. This foursome ran roughshod over the Kings, Predators and Blues. 

    The Sharks also received offensive contributions from several key forwards. Patrick Marleau netted 12 points, followed by Joel Ward (11 points), Tomas Hertl (10 points) and Joonas Donskoi (nine points). 

Special Teams

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    How well a club performs short-handed and on the power play can be crucial to success in the Stanley Cup Final.

    The Sharks' power-play percentage (27.0) ranks second among the playoff teams. Forwards Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture and defenseman Brent Burns account for the bulk of that production. Five of Pavelski's playoff-leading 13 goals, half of Couture's eight goals and four of Burns' six tallies came with the man advantage. 

    Beyond those three, however, the production significantly declines. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joel Ward and Tomas Hertl each have one power-play goal.

    The Penguins' 23.4 percent success rate ranks sixth. Phil Kessel leads with 5 goals, followed by Sidney Crosby (3), Evgeni Malkin, Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz with two apiece and Carl Hagelin with one.

    On the penalty kill, there's not much separation between the two clubs. The Penguins sit fifth (83.6), while the Sharks are seventh (80.4). The Penguins also have one short-handed goal, putting them one up on the Sharks in that department. 

    If the Sharks' top scorers remain lethal on the power play, the Penguins could be in trouble. But if the Pens can contain Pavelski, Couture and Burns, the series could tilt in their favor. 

Role Players to Watch

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    During the Stanley Cup Final, all eyes are on the star players. However, role players can sometimes make a difference. 

    Depth and young, fast players were major reasons behind the Penguins' march to the Final. Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Tom Kuhnhackl bolstered the speed of the forward lines. Rust also sits fifth among Penguins goal scorers. On the blue line, Brian Dumoulin has become a key part of their defensive corps. 

    The Sharks benefited from a combination of youth and a couple of veteran additions. Forwards Tomas Hertl (10 points) and Joonas Donskoi (nine points) sit among the club's leading scorers. Free-agent acquisitions Joel Ward (11 points) and Paul Martin (22:03 minutes per game) are providing additional experience and skill.

    While the star talent should dominate this series, one or more of these role players could play a key part in determining its outcome.  

Key Storylines

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    Every Stanley Cup Final comes with intriguing storylines to follow, and this year's is no different. 

    • After 18 NHL seasons, longtime Sharks stars Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are finally skating in the Stanley Cup Final. With both players in their late 30s, this could be their only shot at winning the big mug.
    • Dealt to Pittsburgh last summer after six unhappy seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Penguins winger Phil Kessel is also making his first appearance in the Final. It would silence his critics if he helps the Pens win a championship.
    • This series will be a matchup of elite centers. The Penguins have two of the best in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Sharks counter with Thornton and Logan Couture, and the versatile Joe Pavelski skates at center and on the wing.
    • Depth at center, however, could be in the Penguins' favor. Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen have more experience and skill than the Sharks' Chris Tierney and Nick Spaling. The Penguins sit eighth in faceoff win percentage (50.0), while the Sharks (46.8) are last in the category.
    • The Penguins and Sharks both relied on their speed to vanquish their earlier playoff foes. Whichever club can best slow down its opponent will garner a substantial advantage in this series. The Penguins might have an advantage here. They overcame two swift-skating opponents in the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning.
    • When it comes to coaching experience, Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer has the advantage over Penguins bench boss Mike Sullivan. This is DeBoer's second trip to the Final since 2012, when he coached an overachieving New Jersey Devils team. For Sullivan, it's his first trip to the Final.
    • Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz and Marc-Andre Fleury were part of the Penguins' 2009 championship club. Their on-ice experience and leadership could prove vital as this series grinds on.
    • Health could be a factor in this series. The Sharks are only missing depth forward Matt Nieto (upper-body injury) from their regular lineup. He could return at some point in this series. The Penguins, meanwhile, lost defenseman Trevor Daley for the rest of the playoffs to a broken ankle. His absence could be a factor.