Sharks vs. Penguins: Keys to Victory in Game 1 of NHL Playoff Series

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistMay 30, 2016

Sharks vs. Penguins: Keys to Victory in Game 1 of NHL Playoff Series

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    It's time.

    The Pittsburgh Penguins will play host to the San Jose Sharks on Monday night to kick off the 2016 Stanley Cup Final.

    For the Penguins, it's their first opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup since winning it all as a young team back in 2009. The Sharks are making their first appearance in the Cup Final in their franchise's 25-year history.

    In the regular season, the Penguins rode a late-season hot streak to 104 points, finishing fourth overall in the NHL standings. In their first year under new coach Peter DeBoer, the Sharks bounced back from missing the playoffs in 2015 to finish with 98 points—11th overall and third in the Pacific Division.

    To get to the Final, San Jose upset the Los Angeles Kings in five games, then beat the Nashville Predators in seven before taking out the St. Louis Blues in six. Pittsburgh needed five games to dispose of the New York Rangers before taking out the Washington Capitals in six and then the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven.

    With puck drop for Game 1 set at 8:00 p.m. ET on Monday, here are the keys to victory for each team in the opening game of the Final. 

Pittsburgh Penguins: Sidney Crosby Steps Up

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    Sidney Crosby was 21 years old when he hoisted his first Stanley Cup on June 12, 2009.

    At that time, he was in his fourth NHL season and his second as team captain—and he had reached the Stanley Cup Final in both those years. With his early success, it looked like Crosby was poised to become one of the greatest players in hockey history.

    Needless to say, it's a surprise that it has taken seven more seasons for Crosby and his Penguins to earn another chance to play for a title. Even more surprisingly, Sid the Kid heads into the Stanley Cup Final tied for eighth overall in playoff scoring with a respectable 15 points in 18 games but tied with teammates Nick Bonino and Evgeni Malkin and three points behind Pittsburgh's offensive leader so far, Phil Kessel.

    Crosby has shown only flashes of his best self in the playoffs so far, but he still earns the respect of the opposition.

    "Sidney Crosby does everything well," said Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic at the teams' media day before Game 1, per Curtis Pashelka of the San Jose Mercury News. "But in the first three rounds, put all of their top players together and that would be Crosby. So, it's going to be a lot harder, but a lot more fun." 

    A top-level performance from Crosby in Game 1 would go a long way toward fuelling a Penguins victory on Monday.

San Jose Sharks: Offense Keeps Firing

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    The San Jose Sharks' most potent tool through the first three rounds of the playoffs has been their scoring power.

    So far this spring, the Sharks have averaged a playoff-best 3.50 goals per game. Luke Fox of Sportsnet reports that Logan Couture has already set a new San Jose franchise record with 24 postseason points, and Brent Burns' 20 points marks a franchise high for defensemen.

    Couture, Burns and Joe Pavelski hold down the top three spots in the playoff scoring race heading into Game 1. If the Sharks keep scoring, they'll be on their way toward collecting their franchise's first Stanley Cup in 25 years.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Matt Murray Keeps Cool Under Pressure

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    The man who will be charged with thwarting the Sharks' attack on Monday is Matt Murray, the rookie goaltender with ice in his veins.

    With 15 playoff starts already under his belt, the 22-year-old's postseason experience has now surpassed the 13 games he played during the 2015-16 regular season.

    When he got back into the net after recovering from a concussion suffered late in the regular season, veteran netminder Marc-Andre Fleury put the Penguins on the brink of elimination after failing to deliver a win in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. When coach Mike Sullivan turned back to Murray, he was rewarded with the two wins that his team needed to advance.

    Entering the Final, Murray's goals-against average is 2.22. If he can keep the San Jose offense to less than three goals in Game 1, he'll give his team a strong opportunity to win.

San Jose Sharks: Martin Jones Stays Strong

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    At the other end of the ice, San Jose Sharks stopper Martin Jones also finds himself in uncharted territory.

    Jones has experienced a long Stanley Cup run before. He's the only member of the Sharks with a Stanley Cup ring after playing in parts of two games with the Los Angeles Kings during the 2013-14 playoffs. But Jones spent most of the postseason on the bench as Jonathan Quick's backup and will log his first ice time in a Stanley Cup Final on Monday.

    This year, as the Sharks' primary starter, Jones has not only played a career-high 65 regular-season games, but he has also guarded the San Jose net for all but 29:05 of the first three rounds, earning all 12 of his team's wins and playing more minutes than any other goalie this spring.

    Jones gets great run support from the group in front of him, but his personal numbers are also impressive, especially given his heavy workload. The first-year starter, 26, has posted a 2.12 goals-against average and .919 save percentage with three shutouts during the first three rounds of playoffs.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Embrace Home-Ice Advantage

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    The Penguins caught fire toward the end of the 2015-16 regular season, finishing out the year with 104 points and landing second in the Metropolitan Division. 

    Pittsburgh has held home-ice advantage in two of its three playoff series so far and has posted a 7-3 record in the friendly confines of the Consol Energy Center. The Pens boast a 3-1 record in overtime at home and have clinched all three of their series so far on home ice.

    For their part, the Sharks will be starting a series on the road for the third time in this year's playoffs. They're a solid 5-4 away from the SAP Center.

    If the Penguins can feed off the energy and support of their fanbase, that could help fuel a good start for the home team in the Final.

San Jose Sharks: Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau Seize the Moment

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    No two players are hungrier to finish the job they've started than San Jose's Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton.

    Marleau, 36, has played 1,411 regular-season and playoff games—all with the Sharks—since he was drafted second overall in 1997. He was picked right behind Thornton, also 36, who spent seven-and-a-half seasons with the Boston Bruins before being dealt to the Sharks just over a decade ago, in November 2005. Thornton's career spans a total of 1,367 regular-season and playoff games.

    Both players are past captains of the Sharks and both are making their first appearances in a Stanley Cup Final. As Nicolas J. Cotsonika pointed out at NHL.com, Marleau and Thornton are in unprecedented territory.

    Their 2,778 regular-season games are the most ever for two teammates playing in a Cup Final for the first time, and Marleau's single-team legacy smashes the old record that was held by Dave Taylor, who played 1,078 regular-season games with the Los Angeles Kings before reaching the Final for the first time in 1993.

    "This is not the end goal," said Thornton after the Sharks eliminated the St. Louis Blues last Wednesday, per Cotsonika. When the puck drops at Consol on Monday night, he and Marleau will be especially fired up to chase down the prize that has evaded them—until now.