I know I promised more baseball review…but the NHL playoffs got in the way. And what a playoff season we have had! The Pens and Sharks have both overcome slow starts, defeated bitter rivals, and overcome the demons of past playoffs to face off this week for Lord Stanley’s Cup. It’s an intriguing matchup; the speed and depth of the Pens vs. the top-line dominance and experience of the Sharks. Let’s compare both squads.
This is a classic case of top-line dominance vs. depth. The Sharks, unquestionably, have deployed the best line all spring – Joe Thornton, Tomas Hertl and (especially) Joe Pavelski. Pavelski would be the playoff MVP if voting took place today – he’s scored 13 goals in 18 playoff games! Thornton has been around seemingly forever, but at age 36 he’s still going strong, and may be the best playmaker this side of Crosby. As a group, that line has combined for 21 goals and 50 points.
Their leading scorer is actually second-line center Logan Couture, but he’s done much of his damage on the power play. Their third line is decent with Joel Ward anchoring the youngsters (Melker Karlsson and Chris Tierney), and their fourth line (Zubrus, Spaling, Wingels) is not much of a threat at all offensively.
For the Pens, as most of you know, their game is about depth and speed. When they are at their best, they are rolling all four lines and play at a blindingly fast pace. Pittsburgh’s top line (Crosby, Hornqvist, and Sheary) hasn’t produced at the level of the Thornton line, but they’ve done quite a bit of damage (15 goals, 33 points combined). Pittsburgh’s advantage is the other lines – any ‘second line’ that has Malkin on it is automatically one of the best in the league (and throw in what Kunitz and Rust did last series as well); the third line of Hagelin/Bonino/Kessel (‘the HBK’ line) has been the Pens’ best, most consistent line since early March; and the Pens’ fourth line has contributed quite a bit as well (Cullen, Kuhnackl, and Fehr have combined for eight goals and 14 points).
Thus far the San Jose forwards have scored a few more goals – but their over-reliance on their top line is a potential weakness. Pittsburgh’s scoring is far more balanced, therefore I give the Pens a very slight edge here.
Against most opponents, I figure Pittsburgh will have the best defenseman available in Kris Letang – but between his lapses this spring and Brent Burns’ dominance (six goals, 20 points), clearly Burns has had the best playoff by far. He’s the unsung hero of the Sharks, the glue that holds them together – especially on the power play. The other five Sharks’ defensemen are nothing special in the offensive zone – only Marc-Eduard Vlasic has scored even one goal, and the bottom pair of Brendon Dillon and Roman Polak have not recorded ANY points in 18 games. Ex-Penguin Paul Martin is an ideal partner for Burns, while Vlasic and Justin Braun have formed a capable second pairing. The third pairing, however, is a serious liability for the Sharks and one that a deep team can exploit. San Jose has faced some powerful teams – the Kings, Preds, and Blues each had very skilled top lines – but all of those teams struggled with their ‘bottom six’ scoring. The Pens present a new challenge, and the third pairing holds the key. If they can hold up against the HBK line (or the Malkin unit, if head coach Peter DeBoer determines HBK warrants more attention), then it will be a big advantage for San Jose.
As for the Pens, it’s once again a case of depth over individual talent. Letang may not be Burns’ equal this spring, but we know he’s capable of high-level play – and the Pens’ bottom four are simply faster and better puck-movers than the San Jose bottom four. Maatta and Schultz, in particular, are better in the offensive end than most of the Sharks’ D. The question is, can Schultz continue to excel in his own end? He came from the Oilers with a very poor defensive reputation, but aside from a couple of lapses he’s comported himself very well thus far. Maatta likewise had major issues early on, but after being scratched (then forced back into action with Trevor Daley’s season-ending injury) he’s looked much better.
I’m calling this matchup even – I like the Pens’ depth, but Maatta and Schultz have to show me they can handle a full series at the same level of play that they showed in games 6 and 7 vs. Tampa. Burns is such a force for San Jose – he evens this up all by himself. He’s the one player San Jose cannot afford to lose to injury.
POWER PLAY/PENALTY KILLING
No question, this is a huge advantage for the Sharks. They converted just over 22% on the PP during the regular season, and they are clicking at a 27% clip in the postseason. They are big, strong, and Pavelski is a master of puck deflection.
For Pittsburgh, the power play was a source of frustration much of the season, converting at only 18.4% during the season – but it has been better of late, as they are at 23.4% in the playoffs. When they get traffic and invest in a ‘shoot first’ mentality, they are dangerous – but too often they are content to pass it around the perimeter, looking for the ‘perfect play’.
The Pens’ penalty kill is a different story – they have been aggressive all season, ranked fifth during the season in PK% and were among the league leaders in shorthanded goals. They have been nearly as effective in the postseason, with an 83% kill rate despite the tougher competition.
San Jose’s PK has been one of their few weaknesses – they ranked 21st during the season, killing just over 80.5% of opposing penalties, and that rate has stayed almost the same during the playoffs.
Despite San Jose’s PK woes, I still give the advantage here to the Sharks. Their power play is just too tough. If this becomes a special teams battle, I expect the Sharks to prevail.
Hard to see an advantage either way – both goalies were untested coming into the playoffs, and Murray is obviously a rookie and the Sharks’ Martin Jones spent several years as a backup for the Kings. Both have shown no propensity to crack, and after three difficult rounds there’s no reason to expect anything but good, solid positional goaltending from either one. This seems pretty even to me as well.
This is a very tough series to call – both teams are confident, I have a TON of respect for the Sharks and what they’ve done this spring, and the advantages are small. However, the playoffs have been called loosely – very few penalties, a lot of 5-on-5 play – and I really believe that favors Pittsburgh’s speed game. There will be some bumps along the way and a San Jose win sure wouldn’t shock me – but I don’t think Burns, Thornton, and (especially) Pavelski can keep this pace up. On the flip side, Evgeni Malkin is starting to play a lot better, and I think this is his time to shine. I’m saying PENS IN SIX!!
I’ll try to file a live report after Game Five next week for you all.
Dave Glass can be reached at email@example.com.