The Stanley Cup Final matchup is set and about to get underway. This year, the San Jose Sharks will represent the West and the Pittsburgh Penguins will represent the East in the battle to see who will get to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Here are four story lines to watch in the series and surprisingly not one of those story lines involves Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.
MATT MURRAY VS MARTIN JONES
So often playoff hockey is about the team riding the hand of a hot goalie. Don’t expect this finals to be any different. No, the matchup isn’t Braden Holtby or Ben Bishop vs Corey Crawford or Jonathan Quick. Instead, it’s Pens rookie Matt Murray vs long-time AHLer Martin Jones for the Sharks.
Murray spent most of the season in the minors and it wasn’t until an injury to long-time Pens goalie Marc Andre Fleury did Murray even get a shot. Fleury is healthy but it’s still Murray in net – and with good reason. Murray has been spectacular in this post-season. In 15 playoff games Murray has posted a .924 save percentage and a goals against average of 2.22.
While Murray has gotten much more attention than his counterpart on the Sharks Martin Jones, Jones has also played well this post season. Jones has posted a .919 save percentage and a 2.12 goals against average in 18 playoff games en route to the Sharks Stanley Cup Final appearance.
SHARKS THIRD D PAIRING VS PENS THIRD LINE
No one can argue that the top 4 Sharks defensemen are anything short of spectacular. Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, former Pen Paul Martin, and Justin Braun compose one of the best top 4 d-pairings in all of hockey. However, beyond that the Sharks remaining defensemen leave much to be desired. The Sharks third d-pairing of Brenden Dillon and Roman Pollack have combined for a total of zero points in their 18 playoff starts and the pair has struggled mightily at times. They will certainly be tested against the Pens bottom six forwards, especially the Pens third line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel. The HBK line—as it has become known as—has carried the Pens at times during this playoff run.
SPEED VS SIZE
The Pens-Sharks matchup is a classic West-East Cup final. It’s the speed and skill of the Pittsburgh Penguins versus the size and physicality of the San Jose Sharks.
The Pens have been able to use their speed to their advantage in this post-season, especially in bursts early in games. The Sharks are your prototypical Western Conference playoff team: big and physical. The Pens got a taste of what they can expect out of the Sharks in their 2nd round matchup against the Caps. The Sharks, however, are even bigger and more physical than the Caps.
AGE VS YOUTH
The Sharks are a talented and physically imposing team of veterans, and that’s a double edged sword for the Sharks. Many of the Sharks most important contributors are over 30. Brent Burns is 31, Paul Martin is 35, Joel Ward is 35, Joe Thornton is 36, and Patrick Marleau is 36.
The age of the Sharks is a stark contrast to the youth of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Only one Penguins player is older than 35—4th liner Matt Cullen. The Pens roster has been bolstered all year by additions from their AHL affiliate, which has given the Pens—a team many think of as star and veteran heavy—a decidedly youthful lineup. Tom Kuhnackl is 24, Conor Sheary is 23, Bryan Rust is 24, Matt Murray is 22, Brian Dumoulin is 24, and Olli Maatta is 21.
It will be interesting to see whether the Pens can exploit their youth to their advantage by wearing down the older Sharks roster or whether it will be the Sharks who can use their experience to their advantage over many of the young Pens players who are making their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.