The battle for Lord Stanley’s Cup begins Monday night in Pittsburgh. After upsetting the President’s trophy recipients-the Washington Capitals-and dethroning the reigning Eastern Conference champions-the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Pittsburgh Penguins are back in their first Cup Finals since 2009, when they defeated the Detroit Red Wings in seven games. Many thought that Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pens would have many more opportunities to hoist another Cup. But as I pointed out the other day, Pittsburgh fell short of expectations year after year. Yet here they are once again, and there is no doubt they are hungry for another title.
The San Jose Sharks, meanwhile, were under the radar coming into this year’s playoffs. I certainly didn’t take them seriously- I had them losing to Los Angeles in the first round! But after many years of agonizing playoff losses, this year’s Sharks are different. They defeated the favored Kings with relative ease in round one. They held off a feisty Nashville team by routing them 5-0 in a seventh game in round two. Then they defeated the Blues in round three to seal their first Cup Finals birth in franchise history. The Sharks have officially turned the corner. But will they be able to complete their breakthrough season with their first championship?
It’s time for me to break down this series. Very simple: I’ll break down the many reasons why either San Jose or Pittsburgh could win this series; then I’ll arrive at my prediction. Let’s begin with the slight underdog in this series, the San Jose Sharks.
Here’s Why San Jose Could Win
The Sharks are Stingy Defensively
Anchored by defenseman Brent Burns, San Jose is allowing a playoff low 1.28 goals per game in even strength situations. Additionally, after allowing the second fewest shots per game in the regular season, the Sharks are only allowing 27.1 shots per game in the postseason. To put that figure in perspective, Pittsburgh’s three previous opponents all allowed at least 30 shots per game. Tampa Bay, for the record, allowed 33.3 shots per game, and the Penguins had trouble scoring against them at times. Moreover, San Jose was 5th in the NHL in allowing the fewest amount of scoring chances.
San Jose Might Have a Big Edge on the Power Play
After finishing the regular season with the third most effective power play, San Jose has been even better on the man-advantage in the postseason, converting 27% of their opportunities as opposed to 22%. On the other side, the Penguins have a good power play of their own. But the Penguins power play shouldn’t be a huge problem for the Sharks because they are one of the most disciplined teams in the NHL, ranking only 22nd in time spent in the penalty box. If you notice on that table I just linked, the Penguins are also very disciplined. But here’s what is interesting- the Sharks were 4th in the NHL in penalty minutes against while the Penguins were 25th, which means we have a clear “strength vs strength” battle. Will the Penguins play disciplined or will San Jose continue to draw penalties? That’s arguably the essential question in this series because, as we know, the San Jose’s superb power play, if given many opportunities, will finish the job.
The Penguins May Have the Big Names, but the Sharks are Just as Potent
You’d think that Pittsburgh would have the edge offensively. Yet with the likes of Logan Couture-who leads the playoffs in points-and Joe Pavelski-who has a playoff-high 13 goals, San Jose was fourth in the league in goals per game, finishing just behind Pittsburgh.
Some more advanced stats say the Sharks may even be the better offensive team. Most notably, San Jose has averaged the highest amount of high-danger scoring chances per game in the league this year, playoffs included (click on columns to see the table on that link). This is a very crucial stat: it shows how many really good opportunities a team gets to score each game. On the flip side, the Sharks are also very good at limiting high-danger scoring chances, which reinforces how good the Sharks are defensively.
If you compare San Jose and Pittsburgh in high-danger chances for and against, you’ll notice that they are evenly matched. Both teams are excellent in generating great scoring opportunities and both are above average in preventing them as well. Which side will get the better of the other in this key category? I’m not sure. But I do know that San Jose, at the very least, is just as good as Pittsburgh offensively.
San Jose has the “Old Guy Without a Cup” Factor
With veterans like Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, and Joe Pavelski seeking their first Cup, don’t think that this doesn’t provide extra motivation for the Sharks. Seriously! By all accounts, hockey players take unbelievable amounts of pride in coming through for the veterans.
Here’s Why Pittsburgh Could Win
General Indicators say Pittsburgh is the Better Team
The Penguins had both more points in the regular season and a higher goal differential than San Jose. Additionally, the Penguins were actually labeled as the favorite to win the Cup before the playoffs started by the analytics community based on how well they had played since Mike Sullivan took over as head coach in December. And if you think about it, Pittsburgh has done nothing to dispel that notion this postseason. Most notably, they upset the top-seeded Capitals in a matchup that many said would decide who would ultimately win the Cup.
Pittsburgh is Very Prolific Offensively
I underscored San Jose’s offense a few paragraphs ago, but I don’t want that to be taken as an indictment on Pittsburgh’s offense. By many accounts, the Penguins are the best goal-scoring team in hockey. Even though they were only fourth in goals per game in the regular season, more telling was how they led the league in shots per game at 33.2. Better yet, Pittsburgh has one of the league’s highest Corsi %, which indicates that the Penguins not only are the superior possession team than San Jose, but they spend more time in their offensive zone as well (For more of an explanation of Corsi, click here). In all, Pittsburgh is tied for first in goals per 60 minutes in even-strength opportunities, indicating that the Penguins have the most dangerous offense San Jose has faced in the postseason.
The Best Players on the Ice Play for Pittsburgh
Having the best players on your team is a recipe that works best in basketball. Yet it can’t hurt that the Penguins have Crosby, Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang among others. The reason I bring up Pittsburgh’s stars is that as the stakes rise in the playoffs, each team’s key players will receive more ice time. Take Letang for instance. In the Capitals series, he averaged at least thirty minutes in four of the five games he played in. Obviously, the stage doesn’t get any bigger than the Stanley Cup Finals, so I anticipate both sides taking advantage of power play opportunities, in particular. Even though San Jose is very disciplined, the power play could be where Pittsburgh takes advantage in this series. The Penguins had one of the best penalty kills in the regular season, and I bet it could be even stingier this series with Letang on the ice at all times. Moreover, the Penguins power play, which was rather average in the regular season, should continue to be as great as it has been in the playoffs. By the end of this series, the combination of Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel might give Martin Jones long-lasting nightmares.
The Penguins Have the Advantage in Net, But That May Change
San Jose has an excellent roster, but their success doesn’t start with goalie Martin Jones. As a team, the Sharks were only 20th in save percentage in the regular season. While Jones has been good in the playoffs, Penguins goalie Matt Murray has been even better. He owns a superior save percentage at .924, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Murray, on average, has faced roughly five more shots per game than Jones and he also has a .866 save percentage in high-danger situations compared to Jones’s .794 mark.
I should mention that Pittsburgh has a Stanley-Cup winning goalie-Marc-Andre Fleury- waiting to play in case Murray falters. But I view this as a negative for Pittsburgh because it might lead to a goalie controversy. What if Murray, who has been solid thus far, has a poor Game 1? Does Mike Sullivan go back to Fleury? Once teams start tinkering around with their goalies, that spells trouble. It happened with St. Louis in the Western Final when they vacillated between Brian Elliott and Jake Allen. I believe the changes in net disrupted the confidence of both goalies, mainly Elliott’s. When and doubt, I think it’s smart to take the team with the more stable goaltending situation. So if the Penguins are in a situation where they have to choose between Murray or Fleury, which is certainly possible given how potent the Sharks are, then I can’t trust whoever is in net for Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh is terrific. They were arguably the league’s best team coming into the playoffs and they became the undisputed favorite after beating Washington. Yet they are in for their greatest battle against the Sharks. Pittsburgh is tremendous offensively, but San Jose allows relatively few scoring opportunities and is disciplined. Meanwhile, while the Sharks have one of the best power plays the Penguins have seen, Pittsburgh counters with a great penalty kill. Both teams are good at creating and preventing high-caliber scoring opportunities.
Which way will this series go? It’s hard to tell. Ultimately, it will come down to….goaltending! I’m skeptical of Martin Jones, but he certainly has enough in front of him to lead the Sharks to victory. Ultimately, I think Pittsburgh has the edge in goal if they stick with Murray. However, I envision a Sharks onslaught in one of the first two games in Pittsburgh, forcing Mike Sullivan to consider switching back to Fleury. And by seizing momentum early, I expect the Sharks to control the series.
A part of me thinks this series will be settled in seven games. Another part of me thinks San Jose will surprise everyone and route Pittsburgh in five games. I’ll settle in between. Sharks in Six.