The Sharks will play for Stanley Cup for the first time in team history while the Penguins will make their fifth trip to the final, and first since 2009.
Both of this year’s finalists certainly have faced their share of adversity in the recent past. The Sharks, who missed the playoffs last season after blowing a 3-0 first-round series to the Kings in 2014, are seeking redemption and to finally shake the notion they choke in the playoffs. A couple of their veterans, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, are seeking their first Stanley Cups in their late-30s.
Meanwhile, the Penguins were considered a dynasty on the rise when they last appeared in the final and won the Stanley Cup in 2009. That marked the second year in a row they reached the final and their win over the Red Wings was supposed to be just the start for the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin-led Penguins. Not so much. In the following six years, the Penguins were eliminated in Round 1 three times and reached just one conference final, where they were swept by the Boston Bruins in 2013. Even early this season the Penguins looked to be a lost cause, but a coaching change from Mike Johnston to Mike Sullivan was just the kick in the butt the team needed — and now look where they are.
Here’s a breakdown of what should be an excellent 2016 Stanley Cup Final.
CONN SMYTHE CANDIDATE
San Jose — Joe Pavelski: The Sharks captain leads all players in post-season goal scoring with 13 and sits second behind teammate Logan Couture in points with 22. Pavelski also leads all scorers with four game-winning goals in the 2015-16 playoffs.
In addition to showcasing an ability to find the back of the net, Pavelski has been a horse for the Sharks. The 31-year-old leads San Jose forwards in average time-on-ice with a 20:08 mark and has won 50.8 per cent of his draws. Honourable mention: Brent Burns, Joe Thornton, Logan Couture
Pittsburgh — Phil Kessel: The Maple Leafs cast-off has been a big player for the Penguins and the leader of the now-famous HBK Line. Kessel has scored six points in each series to lead the Penguins with 18 points through 18 games. He also leads them in shots and power-play points. Kessel was brought in last summer to produce offence and he’s done everything you could want from him in this playoff run. Honourable mention: Sidney Crosby, Matt Murray, Evgeni Malkin
San Jose: 1-1-0
LAST GAME PLAYED HEAD-TO-HEAD
The last time these two teams played was on Dec. 1, which was 12 days before Mike Sullivan became Pittsburgh’s head coach and their season turned around. On Nov. 21, the Sharks won the first meeting between these two in Pittsburgh 3-1, but the Dec. 1 matchup in San Jose was all Penguins, as they won 5-1 led by Malkin’s three points.
ADVANCED STATS (regular season):
Sharks: 5on5CF% – 51.7; 5on5Sv% – .923; 5on5Sh% – 7.79; PDO = 100.1
Penguins: 5on5CF% – 52.7; 5on5Sv% – .931; 5on5Sh% – 7.54; PDO = 100.6
SAN JOSE’S HIGHLIGHT OF ROUND 3
In a crucial Game 5, the Blues led 3-2 until late in the second period when Joe Pavelski tied it up. Then, just 16 seconds into the third period, Pavelski scored what ended up being the game-winner on this beautiful and ridiculous tip-in.
PITTSBURGH’S HIGHLIGHT OF ROUND 3
We’re going to give them two highlights actually, because it’s such a good and unexpected story. If you had to pick out one player to be the Penguins’ Game 7 hero, who would it have been? Kessel? Malkin? Crosby? Where would Bryan Rust have ranked, because his two goals in the deciding game against the Lightning stole the show.