It's Sharks vs. Penguins for the Cup
The Pittsburgh Penguins claimed a 2-1 victory over Tampa Bay on Thursday to win the Eastern Conference title. Now they face the San Jose Sharks for the Stanley Cup. The first faceoff is Monday night in Pittsburgh. It should be a doozy of a series.
How They Got Here
The Sharks surprisingly clipped their bitter Pacific Division rivals in Los Angeles in five games. Then they endured a rugged series against Nashville before demolishing the Predators 5-0 in Game 7. Against St. Louis, the Sharks swapped wins at home and on the road before eviscerating the Blues in the final two by scores of 6-3 and 5-2.
The Penguins toughed it out in the Metropolitan Division this year and had to conquer division rivals in the first two rounds. They dashed the New York Rangers in five games and overcame the league's best team, the Washington Capitals, in six. Tampa Bay took them to seven games, but the Pens demonstrated dominance in the final two to clinch.
Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture have been the backbone of the Sharks attack all postseason, combining for 46 points in the 18 playoff games. Pavelski got his 13th playoff goal for the year in the clinching win over the Blues. The Sharks have put up 3.5 goals a game, by far the best in the league postseason.
Centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin came into the playoffs as the team leaders, and together have contributed 30 points in postseason. But winger Phil Kessel has had a great postseason with 18 points on the Nick Bonino line that has worked wonders. Rookie winger Bryan Rust scored two goals in Game 7 vs. the Lightning to give him five in the playoffs. He had just four in all of the regular season. The Pens have averaged 3.22 goals per game in the playoffs.
The Sharks feature an aggressive defense that fore checks at every turn. The result: defenseman Brent Burns has 20 points in postseason and Marc-Edouard Vlasic has 11. The Sharks have allowed 2.28 goals per game, much better than their regular-season average. Martin Jones has been in goal the whole way, and carries a 2.12 goals against average in 18 games.
Veteran Kris Letang has led the Penguins' defense as a point getter with 10 since the regular season. Ian Cole (plus 7), Trevor Daley and Ben Lovejoy have also contributed by hounding offenses in their own end. The Pens have been superb at blocking shots. They average 2.39 goals allowed. With star goalie Marc-Andre Fleury ailing to start the playoffs, Pittsburgh turned to young Matt Murray and he has responded with a 2.22 GAA.
San Jose has been a superb power play team all season, but got even better in the playoffs. They average an even 27 percent scoring with the man advantage, with franchise mainstays Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, joining with Pavelski and Burns in leading that category. They average 80.4 percent in the penalty kill.
The Penguins' 23.4 percent power play isn't as impressive as San Jose's, but their 83.4 percent penalty kill in postseason is. Still, they won't get by with taking penalties against the Sharks as easily as they did vs. Tampa Bay.
In this series, San Jose has the statistical edge in almost every category. But the Penguins have the advantage of experience. Their trio of Crosby, Malkin and Letang led the team that hoisted the cup in 2009. They'll start the series at home, too, and the Sharks had trouble traveling east against Nashville, losing all three road games. The teams played only twice this year, both winning on the road, but the last game was Dec. 1. The Western Conference was tougher overall this year, but you have to give props to the Pens for overcoming Washington and East defending-champs Tampa Bay in back-to-back series. Where does this leave us? Almost dead even. I like the Sharks to win it all, and +125 to win the series looks good. The seven-game series against Tampa may leave the Pens a bit weary, so I'm thinking the Sharks could steal Game 1. I like the +131. I also think the potential for over 5 or even 5 1/2 could be a good bet after the first game. Both teams have gotten scoring from almost every line combination and have hit the over regularly of late, Pittsburgh in four of the last five and San Jose in the last three.
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