The 2016 Stanley Cup Final match up has all the makings for an instant classic. The Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks have been the two best teams throughout the playoffs and each boast a cast of players that can put on a show. Both teams also come into the final with a lot to prove.
The Penguins are back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since winning the title in 2009. Over the last seven years, through many trials and tribulations, it's been a hard road for Pittsburgh to get back to this point. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz and Marc-Andre Fleury are the only active players remaining from that title run. They've had to endure all of the doubts and the personnel changes over the years since bringing the Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh, but a lot of that melts away with the trip to the Cup Final.
Over on the other side, the Sharks will be playing in their first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history. Only two players on their roster have been to the final series in their careers - Dainius Zubrus in 2012 and Martin Jones, who was the Los Angeles Kings' backup in 2014. Not a single player has ever won the Cup. This is a new experience for almost all of them, including Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, who have waited 18 long seasons over their careers to reach this stage of the playoffs.
The storylines abound, but when it comes to play on the ice, these two teams present possibly the most compelling matchup we could have asked for. Both teams are strong in puck possession and both like to create offense off the rush, but it is where they are different that will likely make or break the series.
The Penguins' speed will be unlike anything the Sharks have seen yet this postseason. Meanwhile, the Penguins may find it more difficult to cut through the Sharks' defensive layers and extremely physical play. Then there are always going to be the things that surprise you about both teams after they've had a chance to prepare for their opponent in the final and after they adjust as the series progresses.
Our NHL writers have different ideas when it comes to who will win the series. Here are their predictions:
Why the San Jose Sharks will win the Stanley Cup in 6 - Chris Peters
The first thing that jumps out about the Sharks is that they're averaging 3.50 goals per game. They boast four of the top five scorers in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Their top two forward lines are almost impossible to contain consistently. Having Joe Thornton, one of the all-time great setup men, with Joe Pavelski, the postseason's leading goal scorer, gives the Sharks a top unit that give their opponents no choice but to accept that they're going to generate a lot of scoring chances. The Penguins may not have the personnel defensively to limit them enough.
The Penguins obviously have plenty of weapons of their own and are probably going to be the team winning the possession battle a little more in this series. That's what is going to make Marc-Edouard Vlasic so important. The Sharks' top shutdown defenseman has been doing a tremendous job against opponents' top forwards. He's probably going to see Sidney Crosby a lot, while the Sharks will have to rely on their team depth to take care of the other weapons that dot the Penguins' lineup.
Lastly, even after the Sharks have lost games in these playoffs, they've never once looked rattled. They're always making the right adjustments for a strong counterpunch, which is a big part of their success in bouncing back. They also finally seem to have the confidence that previous Sharks teams have lacked. They're not just happy to be here.
Why the Pittsburgh Penguins will win the Stanley Cup in 6 - Adam Gretz
In a lot of ways I think this matchup is very similar to the Penguins' second round series with the Washington Capitals. San Jose is another big, strong, powerful team that also has a ton of skill, and I think that will actually be a benefit for Pittsburgh because it kind of plays right into what the Penguins want to do.
In the first two rounds against teams that wanted to play physical and try to wear them down. But the Penguins were always able to use their speed as an advantage to beat that grind-it-out style of play. It's not that San Jose is slow, it is just the fact the Penguins might be the fastest team in the league and they know how to use that to their advantage.
The biggest key to this series for Pittsburgh will be staying out of the penalty box and keeping that San Jose power play unit off of the ice as much as possible. If the Penguins can do that, and keep up the same type of offensive zone pressure that they put on the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals, this should be a series they can take.