Stanley Cup 2016, IV: Danger’s Lurking

I II III IV V

Dunnnn dun….

Dunnnn dun….

Something’s circling in the water.  I hear Sharks love to eat Penguins. Quoth Wikipedia: “adult penguins are at risk at sea from predators such as sharks, the orca, and the leopard seal.”  As it turns out, the Canucks would do just as well apparently, but I digress; THE SAN JOSE SHARKS HAVE REACHED THE STANLEY CUP FINAL!  I can’t believe it.  After so many years of early exits and crushing conference final disappointments, they’re in the big dance for the first time.  Nearly the same, however, can be said about the Pittsburgh Penguins, having underachieved against the expectations of a Sidney Crosby-led team.  With Malkin, Letang, and Fleury as their remaining core, one would expect them to win the Cup more often than not.  They do have the one though, and I’m hoping it stays that way.  Take it next year, Pittsburgh, I don’t care — this Sharks teams needs this one.

nhl_bracket_2016_r4

It’s already dead, I just wanted to put up the version with the Sharks icon in the Final.  I still can’t believe it’s happening.

Penguins vs. Lightning:  We begin in the Eastern Conference Final, where despite an early series lead by Tampa Bay (and a late one for that matter), I continued to have full faith in the Penguins.  With Ben Bishop out of the remainder of the series following Game One, I really thought it would have been over soon.  Those Lightning, though, they’ve got moxy!  Last year I compared them to the team I think the Sabres could be, and I’ll stand by that.  Hopefully they get a shot at a Cup before their window closes (though, it already may have).  The Penguins are interesting.  Their stars have been hot and cold, with Crosby coming to life to score each game-winning-goal in this series’ first three wins.  They blew an early 2-0 lead to lose in OT in Game Five, though they nearly climbed out of a 4-0 hole in Game Four.  Their defense looks simultaneously dangerous and porous, while their rookie netminder has maintained (possibly) unsustaible numbers.  It’s only four more wins they need, and anything is possible.  I knew they’d beat the Lightning; I’m not so sure about the Sharks.  How about their forward depth?  Their leading scorer is Phil Kessel (!) and leading in assists is Nick Bonino (!?).  I know, it’s weird.  They’re also, as mentioned, still running with their rookie goaltender Matt Murray.  It’s possible he could Cam Ward this thing, though in my unbiased opinion, the Hurricanes got extremely lucky that year.  The Penguins found a way out of a series in which they were on the edge for two games in a row — that kind of resilience is tough to compete against.  Even with a surprise appearance from Steven Stamkos in Game Seven, the Lightning couldn’t trounce the persistent Penguins.  I half-predicted that Pittsburgh would take their winning ways all the way to another Cup — with what they showed against Tampa Bay, that might just happen.

Blues vs. Sharks:  IT HAPPENED! (No, not that ^) Disappointment Bowl 2016 ended with the result that’s least disappointing for me!  The Blues should be proud of their accomplishment, having finally slain Chicago and ascended to the third round.  It both feels great and hurts to win (just) 10 games, as the ultimate prize remains out of reach for another long year (+1 to the 47 season drought), yet there’s hope.  As long as the front office doesn’t act rashly and detonate the core, these guys should be contenders for years, especially now that they know what they can do and what it takes to succeed.  San Jose, meanwhile; holy cow.  When I predicted they’d win the series, I wasn’t entirely sold on the possibility, given the Blues depth, goaltending, and scoring abilities, as well as the Sharks historic inability to win more than two in the third round.  Well, I guess I had nothing to fear.  The Sharks clearly know how to handle offensive dynamos, they can find holes in a brick wall of a goaltender, and their own goaltending can be literally impenetrable — the Sharks shut out the Blues twice in consecutive games this series.  Sure, they followed those up with a stinker of a loss, but then they turned around and pummeled the Blues for 11 more goals in two games.  When they’re up against it, they know how to win.  The Sharks are a fully-actualized team; healthy and without major flaws.  The Western Conference Final showed what they can do — will the Penguins be ready?

It’s been six weeks of playoffs.  They’re a grind every year, both for the player and the watcher.  I’ve long said that the Conference Finals are the best hockey of the playoffs — the Stanley Cup Final tends to be less evenly-matched because of the differences between East and West.  For example, we haven’t had a competitive, seven-game final since 2011, the epic Canucks-Bruins war, which was coincidentally the last Cup Final in which I had a rooting interest.  So, no pressure there.  I hope this one is short and slanted toward the West.  That would be ideal, if boring for the impartial viewer.  Against everything I believe in, the less OT, the better …unless it’s Game Four, the Sharks are at home, up 3-0 in the series, and they get the last goal.  That would be amazing.

Advanced stats herein are taken from February 29th through the end of the first round, with the rankings being between the last two teams standing.  Power play and penalty kill are for the playoffs only.

San Jose Sharks Pittsburgh Penguins

P3. San Jose Sharks vs. M2. Pittsburgh Penguins:  For a copycat league like the NHL, this is truly the best outcome.  Both San Jose and Pittsburgh run fast, high-scoring hockey, with offensive beasts on the blue-line and a skilled, young goaltender in net.  They have star power, both old and young, and rabid markets hungry for a(nother) championship.  The Penguins won their first Cup in 1991, the year the Sharks joined the league.  Now they’ve got their first shot at a Cup of their own in their 25th anniversary season.  Phil Kessel aside (and that’s a big aside), just about all of the narratives in this series favor the Sharks, with their aging core (who hasn’t looked a day over 30 this playoffs, beards aside — and that’s a big aside), and perennial disappointments to finally stomp away.  Sure, the Penguins haven’t lived up to the post-2007 hype (as mentioned above), but dammit this Sharks team has everything.  They’ve got the top three leading point scorers, the leading goal scorer, and the winningest goaltender with the most shutouts and the lowest remaining GAA.  The only thing the Penguins have here is an advantage in save percentage, though Martin Jones trails Matt Murray by a slight 0.005.  Unlike in Pittsburgh, San Jose’s stars have shone.  The Penguins depth, however, has been their real force.  Hagelin, Bonino, Kessel, and Rust have broken through like no one expected, while Malkin has quietly put up 11 assists.  In terms of a head-to-head comparison, the possession numbers favor the Penguins, while the special teams are split.  The Sharks power play has been their best attribute, nearly guaranteeing them a goal per game — now it’s up against a better penalty kill than they’ve faced all playoffs.  PDO (aka luck) is even.  The season series is split, though that was completed in a barely over a week just two months into the season.  In a series that looks almost like a toss-up on paper, the Penguins appear to have more negatives surrounding them.  They’re still running on their backup goaltender, and their starter hasn’t been able to earn the job back.  They have more injuries, including the loss of veteran defenseman Trevor Daley.  The Sharks have already run all over the top defensemen of the Kings, Predators and Blues, making them look downright terrible — is Kris Letang next?  On the flipside, Marc-Edouard Vlasic had basically silenced Vlad Tarasenko for five-and-a-half games — will he do the same against Sidney Crosby?  Finally, there’s the coaching.  The Penguins took off in early 2016, gelling after coach Mike Johnston was relieved and new boss Mike Sullivan came in.  Last time the Penguins made a mid-season coaching change, they won the Cup.  Sullivan doesn’t have a ring yet, having only been head of two teams; one of them being the lockout-era Bruins.  Sorry.  Pete DeBoer, meanwhile, has been the backbone of the Sharks’ resurgence, finding a message that has stuck with the core and, obviously, leading them this far.  His closest approach to a Cup was in 2012, where his New Jersey Devils lost to the Los Angeles Kings in six.  Think he knows what it takes to win now?  My bias is clearly showing through now; I’d better make my stance known for good. The 2016 Stanley Cup Champions will be: the Sharks in six.  No chance I’m betting against my team now.  They’re the real deal, and it’s time to bring the Stanley Cup to the Bay Area!

PP% / PK%
SJS: 
27.0%, 1st / 80.4%, 2nd
PIT:  23.4%, 2nd / 83.6%, 1st

5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
SJS:  52.9%, 2nd
PIT:  54.2%, 1st

PDO
SJS:  101.7, 1st
PIT:  101.4, 2nd

Season Series
2015-11-21; SJS 3, PIT 1
2015-12-01; PIT 5, SJS 1
SJS: 1-1-0 — PIT: 1-1-0

Final Fun Facts & Frivolity Field
Cup Virgins:  1 — SJS, STL
Cup Champions since 2006:  1 — PIT (’09)
Longer Cup drought:  SJS — 23 seasons

playoffs-2016-4

My absolute favorite thing about this bracket right now is the fact that the Penguins’ and Sharks’ logos appear to be facing off against each other, with both animals locked in their respective triangles.  I’m imagining the Shark is chomping on the Penguin’s little stick.  In the battle of logo fierceness, San Jose takes this one too.

Round four — let’s go Sharks!  (((HOLY SHIT, HOLY SHIT, HOLY SHIT)))

Ron-Paul_Its-Happening1

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