I’ve been a little bit of a distant observer of the the Stanley Cup Playoffs so far this year. I only started watching the NHL Playoffs closely when the conference finals got underway. I was thoroughly entertained by the games in those series and I am excited for the matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the San Jose Sharks. I’ll admit that I’m not as much a hockey game as I am other sports, namely baseball and basketball, but I will watch the Stanley Cup Finals with great interest and here are some reasons for that.
1. Old Men Hunting for a Ring
The San Jose Sharks have never been to the Stanley Cup Finals. They are a team that was formed in the wave of southern NHL expansion in the 1990’s. They have been rather succesful since their inception, making the playoffs 18 times in their 24 season existence. And they have seen some excellent players in the bay. Two sharks are among the most veteran players in the NHL and have not gotten a chance to play on the biggest stage in Hockey yet. Joe Thorton was drafted first overall in 1997 and has crafted a Hall of Fame career with succesful runs in Boston and San Jose. He has averaged a point a game for his entire career, and has never appeared in the Stanley Cup Finals. The other veteran Shark is Patrick Marleau, who was drafted right behind Thorton, second overall in the 1997 NHL draft by the Sharks. He has been the Captain of the team since 2004, and owns the records for most shots, goals, power play goals, and points. These players have seen the Sharks through many battles, and now they have a chance to win a championship.
Switching focus to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a second, their star player has a chance to show why he is one of the best players in the history of the NHL. Sidney Crosby has already demonstrated that he is an all star player with incredible stick handling and skating skills. He’s crossed the 900 point milestone this season and was announced as a finalist for the Hart Trophy (League MVP) for this season, hoping for his 3rd Hart Trophey. But he struggled this season. It was not until a coaching change that he returned to peak form. Combine that with many around the league questioning his toughness, playoff struggles through his career, and a chance to win a championship, and this makes for an excellent opportunity for Crosby to shine on the game’s greatest stage.
Hockey is often decided by which goaltender has the stronger performance. Usually it’s possible to determine the favorite goalie based off the compared experience and results. That comparison isn’t possible this year. Neither of the starting goaltenders have an immense amount of experience in the playoffs and both will be tested against strong offenses. Martin Jones is the starting Sharks goalie. He was acquired by a trade with the Bruins who had picked him up from the Kings just before sending him to San Jose. This was his first season as a starting goaltender in the NHL and he performed admirably with a .918 save percentage and a 2.27 goals allowed average. Through the playoffs, he has gone 12-6 with a 2.02 goals allowed average. He also is the only player on the Sharks roster with any experience playing in the Stanley Cup Finals. He was the backup goaltender for the LA Kings in 2014 when the Kings beat the Rangers to win the Stanley Cup. The Pittsburgh net minder, meanwhile, is not even the regular starter on paper for the team. Matt Murray has been the backup goalie for the team most of his time in Pittsburgh so far, and was in the American Hockey League (the NHL’s equivalent of Triple A baseball) as late as February of this year. He has since become the team’s starter, as Marc-André Fleury (the regular starter for the team since 2003) has missed time due to post concussion symptoms. Murray has seen time in hard playoff battles in this run, including against the President Cup winning Washington Capitals and a frantic game 7 in the Conference Finals against the Lightning. He still lacks on ice playoff experience. Both goalies do. And this matchup will be among the most interesting to watch in the series.
4. Seeking Redemption
These organizations are regulars to the postseason. However, both teams have seen difficulty in recent playoff runs, with some spectacular failures in the last few postseasons. The Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, and have not been back to the finals since then. They lost to the Montreal Canadians in a seven game series in the 2nd round of the 2010 playoffs, closing their long time home, the Mellon Arena, on a bad note. They lost to the Lightning in the first round the next year, surrendering a 3-1 series lead in the process. They lost to in-state rival Philadelphia the next year, though Crosby and Fleury were not 100%. They made it to the Conference finals in 2013 but got utterly annihilated by the Boston Bruins in four games, scoring only two goals in the entire series as a team. The team lost to the Rangers in each of the last two postseasons, and made significant changes in the offseason, including a giant trade with the Maple Leafs to bring Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh. The Penguins now look to make these postseason failures a distant memory.
The Sharks have some even more hideous failures in recent postseasons, and this season is their first time breaking through the playoffs into the Finals. The team won the President’s Trophey in 2009 (had the best record in the league) but were beaten by the 8th seeded Anahiem Ducks in the first round of the playoffs. They then made it to the Conference finals two years in a row, losing to the Blackhawks in 2010 and the Canucks in 2011. After a first round loss in 2012 to the St. Louis Blues, the team lost to their biggest rivals, the LA Kings in the second round of the 2013 playoffs. The very next season, the Sharks and Kings rematches in the first round of the playoffs and San Jose took a three games to none lead. They then proceeded to become the fourth NHL team and fifth team in professional sports history, to lose a series after leading three games to none in the series. They missed the playoffs last season, and have rebounded under new coach Peter DeBoer and have made the Finals for the first time in franchise history.
Both teams have a laundry list of recent failures, but now have a chance to make them distant memories.
I think this will be a fun series. Both teams have skilled forwards, good coaching, and young goaltenders with considerable talent. I think that San Jose does have the better defensemen in this series, and Martin Jones does have a little more playoff experience than Matt Murray does. Plus the Sharks are sure to play with emotion and energy. They want to get the names of their mainstays and two future Hall of Famers, Joe Thorton and Patrick Marleau, on the Stanley Cup. I think the Sharks will win in 6 games.
Also, please marvel at the masterpiece that is Joe Thorton’s beard.