The Benchwarmer Report: Lord Stanley’s Cup

Elizabeth Salsberg - 3T Nanotechnology
Posted on: June 5, 2016

Hockey fans, this is it! The quest for the Cup is coming to a finish, and the seemingly ever-present Chicago Blackhawks are well out of it. Left standing we have Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins along with Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski et.al, also known as the San Jose Sharks. The Pens lead the series 2-1 with game 4 set to go Monday night in San Jose.

Both teams have lots of skill through their superstars. For Pittsburgh, Crosby and Malkin are merely starters; the line of Phil Kessel, Karl Haglin and Nick Bonino has been absolute dynamite with their speed. Not to mention Brian Rust, who ranks right up there with Hagelin and Kessel for speediest of the lot. Kris Letang is arguably one of the most skilled, speedy and overall dangerous offensive defensemen around (and he also plays impeccable defense for good measure). For the Sharks, there are the usual suspects: Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau along with skilled D-man Marc Edouard-Vlasic—and of course let’s not forget about Brent Burns. Joel Ward has also been key for the Sharks, continuing his somewhat unexpected yet consistent playoff success with 7 goals so far these playoffs, one being a critical setup goal knotting the score at 2 goals apiece in game 3.

To recap for those of you busy with midterms, the Pens took the first two games in Pittsburgh in regulation time, getting off to an early 2-0 lead. Going into San Jose, the Sharks knew it would be critical to win game 3 so as not to be pushed to the brink. Psychologically speaking, Sharks Coach Peter DeBoer would surely agree that heading into a game 4 down 2-1 would be better than 3-0. Until Ward’s goal late in the second period in game 3, it looked like the Sharks were about to go down. But they showed up to play and eventually won when Joonas Donskoi scored the game winner for a 3-2 Sharks victory.

Despite not playing their best hockey in the first two games, the Sharks only lost each game by one goal, and lost game 2 in overtime. This comes mostly from absolutely stellar goaltending by the fresh-faced Martin Jones (26). With the shot differential being heavily in Pittsburgh’s favour, one could argue that the Pens could have had much more lopsided victories save for Jones’ outstanding performance.

Speaking of goaltenders, Matt Murray (22) has been sensational these playoffs for the Pens, posting 13 playoff victories this postseason thus far. He robbed Pavelski and Thornton of multiple opportunities in game 3, reminiscent of his stellar performance against the Caps (whom the Pens were able to overcome in six games). The Sharks have done their homework on the youngster, going high glove side at every possible opportunity (albeit mostly to no avail)—in fact, Ward’s second goal of game 3 was a simple (but still heavy) slapper on net and ‘lo and behold, it went through the five-hole.

Sharks win if:

They can somehow solve Murray more consistently. Gretzky’s old adage, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” certainly applies here. The Sharks need to get more pucks to the net. The Pens have had more shots on goal in every game thus far, particularly in the first two periods. The Sharks need to get to Murray early and often, while putting their big bodies in front of him as screens. They also need to hem the speedy Pens in their zone with their physicality and cycle game. If they can manage these feats offensively while playing solid defense, there’s no question they have a chance at the 25-year franchises’ first Cup.

Pens win if:

It’s no surprise that the Pens have the upper hand in the speed category. To win the series, they will need to use this to their full advantage, breaking out quickly through the neutral zone, splitting the D and eventually, wearing down the Sharks D-men late in games. The Sharks defense corps are great skaters, so this will not be easy. Sharks D Justin Braun made sure of that, single-handedly racing back to take out a Sidney Crosby breakaway chance early in game 3. Kris Letang made a couple of critical bad pinches in game 3. He will need to be more cautious if the Pens are going to win. The Pens are speedy enough and skilled enough; behind phenomenal goaltending from Murray they are the better team on paper. Letang and Doumanlin jumping up on the rush add yet another degree of unpredictability. If the killer line of Kessel, Bonino and Hagelin heats up again and the team as a collective piles up the speedy breakaway scoring chances, the Sharks are at higher risk of taking penalties—leading to the Pens potent power play. Enough of these power plays and blindingly fast chances could easily lead Crosby, Malkin and Company to their first Cup in 9 years.

The Verdict: Pens in six.