Penguins: Sharks Toughest Test Yet

Dec 1, 2015; San Jose, CA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Phil Kessel (81) looks to pass against the San Jose Sharks in the 3rd period at SAP Center at San Jose. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports. The Penguins won 5-1.
Dec 1, 2015; San Jose, CA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Phil Kessel (81) looks to pass against the San Jose Sharks in the 3rd period at SAP Center at San Jose. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports. The Penguins won 5-1. /

The Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks face off in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals Monday night in Pittsburgh.

Get in the fast lane, Grandma – the Penguins and Sharks face off in the Stanley Cup Finals beginning on Monday, a series that promises to be about as quickly-paced and evenly-matched as the 7 Game classic against Tampa Bay that the Pens just advanced from. For Pittsburgh the Finals appearance represents a vindication of sorts for stars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who made it to two consecutive Finals early in their careers (2008, 2009) but have struggled in the playoffs since.

The storyline for San Jose of course is the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup Finals appearance as well as the first in the careers of long time veterans Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton. Both teams have looked every bit the Cup contenders thus far in their playoff runs, meaning fans are likely to be in for a series that could very well go the distance. Here are the keys to victory for each club:

Penguins Keys to Victory

Keep the Pace – It’s been the theme of the Pens resurgence under Mike Sullivan – blistering speed that leaves opponents gassed and has given the Pens a decisive advantage in shots and scoring opportunities. Tampa Bay presented a viable test as a fast-paced club in their own right, but the Pens found another level in controlling the tempo of the game for much of the series. They’ll need to continue to do this against San Jose, who is also quick and can present the same challenges as Tampa Bay if let up against.

Finish, Finish, Finish – For all of the scoring opportunities the Pens’ aforementioned speed generated in the Eastern Conference Finals, and they were considerable, they were still left to hold on to a one-goal lead for the final period of Game 7 in order to punch their ticket to the Finals. Astonishing really, considering that for the series the Pens outshot the Lightning by nearly 100 shots. Much of the credit goes to Tampa goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy who was outstanding after taking over for an injured Ben Bishop midway through Game 1, but the fact remains – shots on goal that don’t find the back of the net don’t win Stanley Cups. The Pens are doing the right things in getting pucks on net, but against San Jose they’ll have to find a way, or benefit from some good fortune, to finish more of those chances.

Next Man Up – Losing defenseman Trevor Daley, possibly the acquisition of the year this season, to a broken ankle in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals was a huge blow to the Pens’ defensive corps. They managed to overcome his absence and take two of the final three games thanks to a re-energized and much improved effort from Olli Maatta, but the challenge will only become steeper against San Jose. With the top three scorers in this year’s playoffs (Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, and Brent Burns) in their lineup, the Sharks pose a significant problem even without a depleted blue line corps, much less to a team playing without one of its top defenders. These Penguins have clawed their way to the Cup Finals through grit and the classic “find a way” mentality however, and they’ll need another several games of the same to overtake the Sharks.

Sharks Keys to Victory

Power Play Prowess – San Jose is clipping along at a 27% success rate when playing on the advantage in the playoffs, best in the league. With multiple scoring threats, the Sharks main power play unit is similar to the Pittsburgh’s in that it can generate a barrage of shots and leave opponents worn down, leading to goals. The Penguins have found the championship discipline they need to win, largely staying out of the penalty box in each of their four victories against Tampa, so the series could turn on how well San Jose converts when they get the advantage in this one, should those opportunities be minimal.

Jones Says No – The Penguins have rode Matt Murray’s stellar goaltending this far in the playoffs, but San Jose has had equal success between the pipes from its starter Martin Jones. It’s no secret that any team facing the Penguins offensive machine will need quality goaltending to have a chance at winning. Jones is boasting a .919 save percentage thus far in the postseason and will need to continue his strong play to give the sharks the best chance to win.

Matchup Madness – The chess game behind the benches that is playoff hockey will come into play quite a bit in this series. With the Pens possessing legitimate scoring power from all of their lines, Sharks coach Peter DeBoer will be faced with the decision of who to pit his top defensive pairing, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, against. The duo has already quieted the top scorers for each of San Jose’s playoff opponents this year and will be poised to do the same against the Pens. While these two log significant ice time for the Sharks they can’t play every shift, so DeBoer will have to strategically determine where to employ them and against whom.

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This is sure to be an exciting series, with the Sharks looking to finally deliver a championship after so many years of playoff disappointment, while the Penguins, and specifically their leaders in Crosby and Malkin, look to put themselves in the company of greatness with a fourth Cup for the franchise and a second together.