Henceforth known as The Aquarium Series, the clash of of the NHL's two final teams has finally arrived.
"Now, it ends."
How the Sharks got here:
It was the team no one paid attention to that became everyone's darling. The ugliest sister of the three California teams, it was the one least heralded, the only one without a single Stanley Cup title, the one that had again limped into the playoffs. Even if they survive the Pacific Division, they had a minnow's chance of toppling a Central Division heavyweight.
Behind an oddball, bearded duo in Joe Thornton and Brent Burns, the Sharks enter their first ever Stanley Cup Finals appearance with a lot of swagger but also an aura of mystery – what is this hockey team the Bay Area speaks of? In the land where Billy Beane and the A's ushered in Moneyball and the Warriors introduced a new way to play basketball, the Sharks' notable franchise milestone received just a murmur amidst several seasons of very good performances.
There must be something in the water, though, because the city in California where dreams come true isn't in L.A. To wit: the hapless Oakland A's continually overachieve during its peak Moneyball years, surpassing all expectations despite being a low-budget afterthought; Steph Curry was a 165-pound three-star recruit out of high school, and now he's first unanimous MVP in NBA history. The Bay Area may the place for the unwanted and the unproven, but its misshapen stars certainly have transformed the landscape.
The Sharks are the same way. Martin Jones, the unflappable 'tender, was undrafted despite winning 81 games over his final two seasons in the WHL before being signed and then traded by the Kings. Burns, recently nominated for the Norris Trophy, was in flux not too long ago when coaches couldn't decide whether to play him on defense or right wing. Joe Pavelski, the team captain, was drafted only after 204 other players had heard their name called, until the Sharks took a gamble with their seventh-round pick.
But as well as the Sharks have played, they've also been a benefactor of some luck. Whether or not that lucky charm is Peter DeBoer remains to be seen, but it's worth noting that this is his second Finals appearance in just his second playoff appearance, and that the Sharks didn't have to face division champion Anaheim, conference champion Dallas or reigning champion Chicago to get there.
How the Penguins got here:
For real – déjà vu, anyone?
After a poor start to the season, a mid-season coaching chance helped the Penguins reach new heights, playing a more wide-open, offensive style that was conducive to its star players' talents. Sound familiar?
Just as Dan Bylsma did in 2009, Mike Sullivan has guided a formerly directionless Penguins squad into the Stanley Cup Finals, their first appearance in seven years. The turnaround has been impressive, but most impressive has been the production of their role players and the emergence of their new wave of talent. Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen have been valuable contributors. Olli Maatta, despite a short-term benching, has played a key role. Even Justin Schultz saw action in a few games and looked competent.
For all the questionable things Jim Rutherford does to the Penguins roster, the best move he made this year was admitting his mistake quickly and firing Mike Johnston. Since then, they've been an unstoppable offensive force, playing at a pace no other Eastern Conference team could keep up with. Unlike the Sharks, the Penguins' road to the final was much more difficult, having to face Henrik Lundqvist's Rangers in Round 1, Cup favorite Washington in Round 2, and then last year's Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay in Round 3.
The biggest constant? Rookie Matt Murray, whose play has put him at the forefront for the Conn Smythe Trophy, win or lose.
The best player in the series is:
When a good player isn't putting up good numbers, he usually isn't the best player in the series despite his immense talent. Sidney Crosby will draw a lot of attention, and no doubt Evgeni Malkin's confidence is soaring after making good on his promise. But the best player in the series is Joe Pavelski, who plays in all situations for the Sharks at multiple positions and has been an offensive force in every single series. Logan Couture deserves credit for the amount of offense he's produced, but things run through Little Joe in San Jose.
The best defenseman in the series is:
The more success Brent Burns and Kris Letang find, the more stay-at-home defensemen fall out of favor. Erik Karlsson is oft-criticized for his roving, offense-first ways, yet the two best defensemen in the Stanley Cup Finals this year are both roving, offense-first guys. Alex Pietrangelo is out. Victor Hedman is out. Is there something the Sharks and Penguins know that other people don't?
But if you had to pick between Burns and Letang, the edge has to go to Burns, who possesses an unstoppable combination of size and skill that makes him difficult to stop, like a swifter, more efficient Dustin Byfuglien. Letang is feisty and won't back down from physical play, but Burns is much sturdier and historically less prone to injury. Burns, by the way, edged P.K. Subban for the last spot for Team Canada at the World Cup, and Letang was never considered a serious threat to make the 2010 or 2014 Olympic teams.
The best goalie in the series is:
There's no question it's Murray, though a lot of credit goes to Jones for helping the Sharks make it this far. Murray is the Penguins' unquestionable playoff MVP, and despite giving way to Marc-Andre Fleury for one game, it's clear that Murray's the No. 1 goalie for Sullivan. Murray's got so much clout now that he'll likely need to play two bad games in a row before Sullivan will consider making a goalie switch. Backup goalies made appearances in each of the conference finals, but the stakes are much higher now and both teams will only make goalie switches as a last resort.
Top five storylines:
- Speed can really kill. Which team will dictate the pace of play? The Sharks' transition offense looked terrifying against the Blues, and the banged-up Lightning couldn't keep pace with the Penguins. Are we going to see a high-scoring series or one where both teams are so concerned about preventing goals that it becomes a boring trap game. The Penguins are more likely to devolve to a neutral zone trap, considering how shy Sullivan was with Crosby when the Blues put Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester on the ice.
- Burns or Letang? It's not a question of which defenseman can score more, but which defenseman can make the least amount of mistakes. The pressure's on Letang because he doesn't have the supporting cast Burns does, and should Letang falter, the Penguins defense starts looking very, very vulnerable. The pressure on Letang is immense, perhaps far more than either Murray, Crosby, Malkin or even Phil Kessel have to shoulder.
- Special teams is key in any series. The Sharks power play is ranked second in the playoffs with a league-leading 17 power-play goals on 63 opportunities, while the Penguins' fifth-ranked penalty kill has allowed just nine goals on 55 chances. Because the Sharks and Penguins don't have much of a rivalry, maintaining discipline shouldn't be much of an issue. But if it does, the more level-headed Sharks have the clear advantage on special teams.
- It's unlikely, but will we see either James Reimer or Fleury in this series? Picking Martin Jones and Matt Murray to be the two last goalies standing would've been a wild gamble, probably far worse odds than Leicester City winning the Premier League title.
- Redemption. Even the coldest of hearts will melt when Joe Pavelski hands the Cup off to Joe Thornton, who will undoubtedly hand it off to Patrick Marleau next. While the Sharks cheered wildly after putting the Blues on the brink, Marleau sat on the bench, closed off from everything, still reeling from a tiring shift. He knows what playoff disappointment tastes like. He knows that, at age 36, this is his first, last and best chance to win the Stanley Cup. The former Sharks captain knows how quickly the rug can be pulled out from under them. His quiet emotions will speak louder than any words written about him. The story for the Penguins is less about redemption and more about re-affirming their status among the league's elite. With the Rangers and Bruins fading and the Islanders and Panthers coming on strong, there's a shift in the balance of power in the works. A second title will give Crosby two more than Alex Ovechkin and the same number as Mario Lemieux. At the end of the day, Crosby isn't nearly as exciting or dynamic as either Ovechkin or Lemieux, but his list of accolades will vault him to the top of hockey glory; not since his early years in the league has he ever been considered the clear-cut best player in the league. Twenty years from now, what will be Crosby's narrative? What about Ovechkin's? The two superstars' careers will forever be linked, and if Crosby wins a second time, will there be more or less debate about who is better?
- (Bonus) It's been 20 years since Gary Bettman aggressively expanded the NHL into non-traditional markets. During that wave, the league added franchises San Jose, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Anaheim and Florida, and with the Sharks qualifying for the Finals, each one of those teams have at least reached the final stage. Should Bettman be credited for the success of each of those teams, even if it did take forever to get there? California and Florida now feature some of the strongest teams in the league. Shayne Gostisbehere was born in Florida, Emerson Etem was briefly the hometown kid on the Ducks, and Auston Matthews is from Arizona. Chug a beer if anyone mentions Bettman's southern U.S. expansion as a big win for the NHL. It's going to happen. The spotlight has never been hotter on the NHL, where it will compete with the NBA for ratings Monday when the Warriors and Thunder play Game 7, and it'll be the first of the four major leagues to venture into Las Vegas.
Sharks, and I say this with much more confidence after watching the Penguins and Sharks each go through three rounds. The Sharks lack experience in the Finals, but the same criticism can be levied against the Penguins, who have the same core as 2009 but with an overhauled supporting cast. So far, the Sharks have looked unstoppable, despite avoiding some of the West's best teams, and most importantly, have stayed healthy for much of the postseason. The Penguins' blue line is still a bit of a concern without Trevor Daley, and who knows which version of Maatta will show up. Sharks in 7.