MEMORIAL Day Weekend marks the beginning of summer in the United States, and it also marks the beginning of the end of the NHL season.
Tuesday morning (10am AEST), the San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins — the last two teams left standing in the NHL — will face off in Pittsburgh with the Stanley Cup on the line.
Watch the Stanley Cup Finals LIVE and HD on Fox Sports 2 from 10am AEST
This Cup Finals will be a refreshing one for hockey fans. The Penguins have not played in a Cup Final since they won the Stanley Cup back in 2009. The Sharks are making their first appearance in the Cup Finals in franchise history. Here’s what any fan planning to tune in needs to know about each team before the series starts.
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT THE SHARKS
The Sharks are finally Cup contenders after 25 seasons of falling just shy of reaching the Cup Finals. The team did not make the playoffs last year, but it only took a few small tweaks to turn the Sharks into a real threat this season.
Key players for the Sharks
The biggest upgrade for the Sharks was in net, where San Jose added 26-year-old goaltender Martin Jones. This season was Jones’ first as a No. 1 goaltender at the NHL level, and he did not look like a new guy as he earned a 37-23-4 record in the regular season with six shut-outs and a .918 save percentage. He has remained steady in the playoffs, going 12-6 in 18 games with three shut-outs and a .919 save percentage.
The players likely to receive the most media attention in the Cup Finals are Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Marleau has played the entirety of his NHL career (which dates back to the 1997-98 season) for the Sharks, and Thornton has been in San Jose since 2005-06. Both players wore the “C” for the Sharks in the past, but as the Sharks failed to do damage in the playoffs over the years, each eventually lost his title as team captain. Most athletes would have left the team after losing their captaincy, but Thornton and Marleau decided to stick around. Winning the Cup this season would be the ultimate reward for that loyalty.
San Jose’s biggest producers
The Sharks boast the NHL’s leading pointscorer in the playoffs in Logan Couture (24 points on eight goals and 16 assists). They also have the NHL’s leading goalscorer in the playoffs in Joe Pavelski (13 goals in 18 games). Defenseman Brent Burns boasts one of the best playoff beards this postseason, but he is also a key factor on the ice as he leads all NHL defensemen in scoring in the playoffs with 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) in 18 games.
A well-rounded team
The Sharks lead the NHL in the playoffs in nearly every offensive category. They have scored 63 goals in 18 postseason games and also have a terrifying power play which is currently operating at a 27 per cent clip. Despite the impressive goal totals, San Jose has a surprisingly low number of shots per game (28) this postseason. The low number of shots but high number of goals shows the Sharks know how to make the most of every scoring opportunity they get.
That high-flying offense does not come at the expense of good defence. The Sharks forwards have done a fantastic job helping out the defence on the back-check, and they allowed the fewest shots-against per game (27.1) of any team who advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs. The team also allowed the third-fewest goals-against per game (2.28) of any NHL playoff team.
Room for improvement
The Sharks could tighten up on the penalty kill, which is only slightly better than mediocre with an 82.6 per cent success rate. They will want a much better showing in the face-off circle, where the Sharks are performing at a playoffs-worst 46.8 per cent.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE PENGUINS
Pittsburgh was a disappointment through the first few months of the NHL season, but after firing former head coach Mike Johnston on December 12 and replacing him with new head coach Mike Sullivan, the Penguins started to heat up in the second half and now enter the Stanley Cup Finals as the hottest team in the NHL. The Penguins have lost back-to-back games just once since January and went on a 14-2-0 run through the final 16 games of the regular season.
Key players for the Penguins
Although the Penguins boast some of the NHL’s biggest stars in forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the players who compliment those stars are the real skaters to watch in the Cup Finals. That list includes the electric “HBK” line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel. The trio combined for 45 points in 18 playoff games so far. Malkin and Crosby each have 15 points in 18 playoff games, but Pittsburgh’s balanced offensive attack means a different player can play the hero each night.
One of the best surprises of this playoff run for Pittsburgh has been the netminding from 22-year-old goaltender Matt Murray. The Thunder Bay, Ontario native played in 13 games in the regular season but originally became the go-to goaltender in the playoffs due to an injury to Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury. Murray quickly stole the show, going 11-4 in 15 playoff games with a .924 save percentage. He boasts the composure of a long-time veteran and has become a saviour of sorts for a Pittsburgh fanbase accustomed to watching Fleury struggle in the postseason.
Pittsburgh’s biggest producers
Phil Kessel did not have much playoff experience in the past with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but the playoffs have been no problem for the new Penguin, who leads Pittsburgh in scoring with 18 points (nine goals, nine assists) in 18 games. Crosby was clutch for Pittsburgh in the Conference Finals, as he posted game-winning goals in three of Pittsburgh’s four wins.
Speed fuels Pittsburgh’s run
The Penguins play an incredibly fast style of hockey, and their team speed helps make every game a thrilling one to watch. It also generates plenty of offense, as the Penguins rank second in the NHL in playoff goals (58) and have the most shots-per-game (35.1) of any team who made it farther than the first round of the playoffs.
Room for improvement
The power play has been performing well with a 23.4 conversion rate in the playoffs, but it is not as strong as San Jose’s powerplay unit. The Penguins are also not as strong defensively as the Sharks. Kris Letang is Pittsburgh’s biggest star on the back end, but he has been known to commit some horrific turnovers. Murray has been able to clean up Pittsburgh’s mistakes on defence so far, but Pittsburgh will have to play a tighter game against a Sharks team which seems to capitalise on every opportunity afforded to them in the playoffs.
WHO HAS THE EDGE?
Although the Penguins are the hotter team, the Sharks have more overall depth. San Jose’s strength in every area of the game will be tough to beat, so the Sharks are the favourite to win it all this year.