The great thing about the 2016 Stanley Cup Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks is that no matter who wins it is going to bust some pretty old and tiring narratives about some of the NHL's best players and teams and their ability to win in the playoffs.
The Sharks, a team that has consistently come up short in the playoffs after great regular season performances, have a chance to win their first championship. The Penguins, tagged as underachievers for "only" winning one Stanley Cup to this point with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have a chance to add to that collection. We know that one of Joe Thornton or Phil Kessel is going to lift the Stanley Cup over the next two weeks.
We just don't know which team, or player, is going to have their reputation or legacy change forever.
Before the series begins on Monday night in Pittsburgh we do have a pretty good idea as to which players are going to play the most significant role in the outcome of the series.
Here, we take a look at 10 of them.
Keep in mind: This is not simply a ranking of the 10 best players in the series. It is a look at the players that could end up making the biggest impact. Position, playing time, role, and potential matchups all play a factor in that.
So let's dig in.
1. Martin Jones, Sharks. Goaltending is a significant part of why teams win and lose in the playoffs, and Jones is going to have his toughest test yet in this series.
The Penguins are one of the best offensive teams in the league and have already knocked out Henrik Lundqvist and Braden Holtby thist postseason, and then overwhelmed Andrei Vasilevskiy as he attempted to steal the Eastern Conference finals series.
Jones is going to be the next goalie to face the Penguins' four-line attack, and he is going to have his work cut out for him. The Penguins are averaging 35 shots on goal per game this postseason, and if they are able to maintain that level of play Jones is going to have to be at his absolute best to give the Sharks a chance. Anything less than that and it could end up being a very short series.
2. Matt Murray, Penguins. At this point I am committed to the goaltending is key angle, and there is no reason to shy away from it here.
Murray has been one of the top goaltending prospects in the NHL for two years now and the Penguins have always had high hopes that he could one day be a regular starter in the league. They probably just did not expect it to happen this postseason. Or for him to be this good, this fast.
There is also going to be no debate as to which goalie starts in the Penguins' net this series. It is simply Murray's job.
Like Jones in the San Jose net, Murray is going to get one of his toughest challenges yet. The Sharks offense has been just as good as the Penguins this postseason (though, they do not average anywhere near the shot volume the Penguins do) and has the most dynamic power play in the league.
Murray's play slipped a bit in the third round against the Lightning from where it was in the first two rounds as he was outplayed by Vasilevskiy. But because the Penguins were so much better up front the difference in net wasn't really noticed. The Penguins probably won't have that same type of territorial edge on the Sharks so Murray is going to have to be better than the .904 save percentage he had against the Lightning. The good news for the Penguins: He was great in Games 6 and 7, so perhaps he is starting to come back around after a little slump early toward the end of the second round and the early part of the third round.
3. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Sharks. Every top goal scorer that the Sharks have faced this postseason has been shut down over the course of the series. The one common denominator in all of their struggles? A significant amount of ice-time against Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
He isn't the biggest name on the Sharks team (or even on their defense -- that honor goes to Brent Burns) but he might be one of the most important when it comes to shutting down the other team's best players. He is probably going to see an awful lot of Sidney Crosby in this series. A big part of the Sharks' postseason collapse in the first round in 2014 against the Los Angeles Kings was the injury to Vlasic in the middle of the series.
4. Kris Letang, Penguins. Like Vlasic, Letang isn't the best player on the Penguins. But he might be the one guy they need the most from. There are only a handful of defensemen in the league that can impact a game the way Letang can at both ends of the ice. He plays a ton of minutes, is a big part of the offense, plays in every situation and is simply one of the best defensemen in the league. One thing he has to watch: His temper. For as good as Letang is, when teams target him and make hitting him a focal point of their attack he can be prone to responding and taking a bad penalty at times. Given how great the Sharks power play is this is a series where the Penguins can not take bad penalties and put themselves shorthanded.
With Trevor Daley out for the remainder of the postseason with a broken ankle the Penguins are going to need Letang to continue to be an impact player. Brian Dumoulin is a really good player in his own zone, and Olli Maatta seems to have rediscovered his game after a brutal start to the postseason, but Letang is the one guy on this blue line that can make a significant impact.
5. Sidney Crosby, Penguins. That eight-game goal drought that everybody was making a big deal about seems like it was ages ago, doesn't it? Since then all Crosby has done is score three goals (all game-winners) and was the best player on the ice in their Game 7 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
He is still the best player in the world and can take over a game on any given night.
6. Joe Thornton, Sharks. Thornton has not only been the Sharks' best player all season, there was a pretty good MVP argument to be made for him. Even at age 36 he is still one of the best players in the NHL and can dominate all over the ice. One of the best playmakers that has ever stepped on the ice, Thornton's passing is still on a level all its own and he has had it on display on multiple occasions this postseason.
7. Joe Pavelski, Sharks. Pavelski has quietly been one of the best goal scorers in the NHL over the past five years now.
Since the start of the 2011-12 season only two players (Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos) have more regular season goals than Pavelski's 163, and he is in the middle of an unbelievable stretch this postseason. He enters the series with a league leading 13 goals in 18 games, a number that is good enough for third best all-time among American-born players in a single playoff run.
The most goals scored by any player in a single postseason of the past 20 years is 15 by Crosby during the 2008-09 playoffs. Pavelski would seem to have a great chance of at least matching that total.
8. Evgeni Malkin, Penguins. Even when his production is slumping Malkin can still change a game. Like Crosby, he had a quiet series in the second round against the Capitals and a slow start to the series against Tampa Bay, but he enters the Stanley Cup final riding a five-game point streak and is a big part of why Chris Kunitz has found the fountain of youth this postseason and Bryan Rust was able to make a difference in Game 7 against the Lightning. Just look at the attention he commands from the Lightning defense on Rust's first goal to give him a clear lane to the net.
9. Phil Kessel, Penguins. Kessel has to be in the discussion for the Conn Smythe trophy at this point and his presence on a line with Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin has been a huge part of the Penguins' success. By keeping the HBK line together it's allowed the Penguins to roll out three top scoring lines that have been a challenge for teams to slow down. If Crosby and Malkin don't score, Kessel's line is. If Kessel gets shut down, Crosby and Malkin are helping to fill the net. You have to have three or four lines that can score to win in the playoffs and Kessel has helped give the Penguins that ability.
10. Brent Burns, Sharks. The Sharks top-four on defense is sensational, and while Vlasic is the guy that locks things down defensively, Burns is the player that can make an impact in the offensive end of the ice. When you combine his regular season and postseason point production this year he is up to 95 points in 100 games this season which would be a great year for even the best forwards in the league. For a defenseman it is an all-time great season.