PITTSBURGH — The San Jose Sharks are one of the NHL’s best skating teams.
Nashville head coach Peter Laviolette, who watched his Predators get bounced by the Sharks in Round 2, said as much.
So too did St. Louis bench boss Ken Hitchcock, whose Blues were eliminated by San Jose in the Western Conference Final.
“They’re a fast team,” Hitchcock said. “They skate fast. They skate fast, they support the puck. They might look faster than they are, but they’ve got a lot of quick players.
“They’ve got a lot of aggressive skating players. They got a lot of guys that can motor.”
Yeah, the Sharks are quick.
But according to their head coach, maybe not the quickest.
During today’s Stanley Cup media availability, Peter DeBoer called the Pittsburgh Penguins “the fastest team in the league,” adding this series wouldn’t be just about skating, but the possession game as well.
“If you control the puck,” DeBoer explained, “it’s harder to create speed.”
And with that, the 2016 Stanley Cup Final blueprint took shape.
To be fair, the speed-versus-speed angle had already been established. Almost immediately after beating Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference Final, Pens captain Sidney Crosby was asked about his club’s looming matchup with the Sharks.
“It’s going to be fast hockey,” Crosby said. “Two teams that want to play the exact same way, that want to get their D involved (and) their power play is really dangerous.
“It’s going to be quite the series.”
“Tanger is for sure a lot smoother [as a skater]. But Burnsy is still fast. And more powerful, maybe. He’s a big boy, and he’s going to be tough to handle.”
Each respective blueline plays a big role in the generation of team speed. Both the Pens and Sharks have excellent transition games featuring quick, speedy forwards, so it makes sense — the defensemen, tasked with getting those forwards the pucks, need to be mobile too.
Up front, there’s speed across the board. Pittsburgh’s Carl Hagelin won fastest skater competition at All-Star weekend four years ago. Last week, Sharks d-man Brenden Dillon said 36-year-old Patrick Marleau is “still one of the fastest skaters in the league.” Phil Kessel and Matt Nieto can fly, too.
So when previewing the Stanley Cup Final, don’t be fooled when you read predictions of a “quick series.”
That doesn’t mean it’ll be over quick.
Just means it’ll be quick.
After 14 series, just one pick left — the Stanley Cup Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks.
It’s a great match-up, with tons of talent on each side. However, we’d be lying if we said we saw it coming. (We didn’t.) The Penguins, who fired their coach halfway through the season, haven’t been this far since 2009. The Sharks, who missed the playoffs altogether last season, have never been this far.
Looking back on our conference finals picks, PHT staffers did fairly well, with both yours truly and James O’Brien nailing each series score (Penguins in 7, Sharks in 6) on the nose. Unfortunately, the virtual coin continued to struggle, as did the actual Ryan Dadoun.
Conference finals results (Overall record)
Brough: 2-0 (10-4)
Halford: 1-1 (8-6)
O’Brien: 2-0 (10-4)
Dadoun: 1-1 (6-8)
Tucker: 2-0 (10-4)
Alfieri: 2-0 (9-5)
Just Flip A Coin: 1-1 (6-8)
On to the Stanley Cup Final…
Brough: Sharks in 6
Despite what happened last season, I believed Pete DeBoer when he predicted a “big bounce-back” in San Jose. Because when a roster still boasts Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, it shouldn’t be written off. That being said, I didn’t think they’d get this far. The one thing I was skeptical about was the goaltending, since Martin Jones had never been a full-time starter in the NHL. But he’s been solid enough. And besides, the Sharks have so much firepower, and they’ve been so committed to checking in these playoffs, that they’ve rarely needed their goalie to stand on his head. Obviously, the Penguins have been great too, but the Sharks look like an unstoppable force to me.
Halford: Sharks in 7
The Sharks either have incredible luck or a really good medical staff, because I can’t remember the last time a team came into a Stanley Cup Final this healthy. Right now, San Jose’s only injury concern is Matt Nieto‘s upper-body ailment, and it sounds like he might be back soon anyway. This is why I give San Jose the edge. I could honestly see Trevor Daley‘s broken ankle being the difference in a series between two such evenly matched teams.
O’Brien: Sharks in 6
Mike Sullivan’s turn with the Penguins has been both beautiful (in the exhilarating pace) and brilliant (in how that tempo leverages Pittsburgh’s strengths and camouflages weaknesses). The Sharks strike me as the antidote, however. If the pace is frenetic, San Jose boasts comparable firepower. If transition goes from lightning-fast to molasses-slow, Peter DeBoer enjoys a significant advantage on defense. Here’s hoping this series boasts the sort of thrilling hockey that can convert new fans. Either way … advantage Sharks.
Dadoun: Penguins in 7
There’s a lot of love for the Sharks so far and I have to admit I wouldn’t mind seeing Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau finally win a championship, but the Penguins shouldn’t be overlooked. This is a team that has the luxury of putting Phil Kessel on the third line, after all. That kind of offensive balance in the Penguins’ top three lines will make them the biggest challenge that goalie Martin Jones and the Sharks’ defense has faced yet. That depth is also the difference between this year’s Pittsburgh squad and the ones that have fallen short in recent years. Certainly there’s a lot of reasons to like the Sharks, too. This should be a great series.
Tucker: Sharks in 7
This series features the top scoring teams in these playoffs. The Sharks averaged 3.5 goals per game, while the Penguins averaged 3.2 goals per game. I expect this to be a thrilling match-up featuring some of the league’s most talented players on both sides. I think goaltending is going to be a huge factor. Can a 22-year-old rookie in Matt Murray continue his strong run of play in the biggest series of them all? He’s done well with every test so far, but if the Sharks get to him and force Marc-Andre Fleury into the series — or force Mike Sullivan to make that decision — I don’t think Fleury will be able to conjure a championship-winning performance against the lineup the Sharks possess.
Alfieri: Sharks in 6
At this stage of the game, there’s no doubt that these two teams are as evenly matched as can be. Offensively, the Sharks are led by Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, while the Penguins are led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. In goal, Martin Jones and Matt Murray have both had their moments of brilliance this postseason, but both have zero experience when it comes to the Stanley Cup Final. The biggest difference is on defense. That’s where I think the Sharks will win the series. San Jose is loaded with Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Paul Martin, Justin Braun and company. The Pens, who area already without Trevor Daley, have Kris Letang, but the drop-off is significant after that.
Just Flip A Coin: Penguins in 6
PITTSBURGH — Phil Kessel has nine goals and nine assists in 18 playoff games. Some have said he’s playing the best of his hockey of his career.
“Obviously, you’re disappointed,” Kessel said Sunday. “But it is what it is. I think I’ve had a pretty good playoffs, I’ve always done pretty well for (Team USA) in all the tournaments I’ve played in for them. But we’re in the Stanley Cup Final. I can’t be disappointed.”
Two years ago, Kessel led the Americans in the Olympics with eight points (5G, 3A) in six games. He was named the best forward in the tournament. Callahan, in comparison, had no goals and one assist in six games.
Of course, Callahan has a history with World Cup head coach John Tortorella. So does Dubinsky. And let’s face it, when you think of the kind of player that epitomizes Tortorella-coached teams, it’s not Kessel, it’s blue-collar workers like Callahan and Dubinsky.
Still, to not choose a guy who’s a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate?
“I’m surprised he was left off Team USA,” Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford said today, before head coach Mike Sullivan praised Kessel for his competitiveness and for improving his play away from the puck and along the boards.
At any rate, Kessel didn’t sound like getting left off the World Cup squad was bothering him too much. One day from playing in his first Stanley Cup Final, he’s pretty happy with where he’s at right now.
“I’ve never really been on a team that’s felt like this,” he said. “I don’t even know how to describe it, to be honest. I’m so excited to get a chance to play for the Stanley Cup and play with these guys.”
Jason Pominville couldn’t have envisioned a worse start to his season.
Pominville picked up four assists in his first three games of 2015-16, but he didn’t score his first goal until Nov. 28 (22 games). The 33-year-old finished the year with 11 goals and 36 points in 75 games. Those are clearly disappointing numbers for a player who comes with a cap hit of $5.6 million per season.
“Last year it was just the start I had,” Pominville said during a Q & A with the Star Tribune. “I’m not even too worried about the rest of it. You get off to the start I had, and name me one guy who had my start who winds up having a good year. It’s tough to get behind the 8-ball. You lose confidence, you’re trying to find your play and get back to where you’ve had success, but you get away from it because you’re trying to overdo things or overthinking. I just need to get off to a better start, and my points will be where they normally would be.”
It’ll be intersting to see if the Wild give Pominville the opportunity to have a bounce-back season. A high cap hit combined with poor production could also lead to him finding himself elsewhere in 2016-17.
Wild beat reporter Michael Russo mentioned that Pominville could be bought out this summer, but that would be expensive. If Minnesota buys out the veteran, they’d have $877,777 of dead money on the cap next year, but a significantly higher amount after that.
Here’s what the full buyout would look like (via General Fanager):
A $4.627,777 cap hit in 2017-18 is definitely steep.
The Wild could also decide to keep Pominville around and see if he can rebound from last year’s disaster. After all, he’s one year removed from an 18-goal, 54-point season and two years removed from a 30/30 season.