As San Jose prepares for their first-ever foray into the Stanley Cup finals, here are some of the perceived strengths and weaknesses for team teal.
The San Jose Sharks are in the Stanley Cup Final. That alone is worthy of a successful season. However, if they want to win some silver hardware, they have to solve the puzzle that is the Pittsburgh Penguins, the demon of the Eastern Conference. So what should the Sharks account for before they play in their first ever Stanley Cup Finals?
This is an interesting final because the Sharks and Penguins are two teams that prove that playing great hockey after the trade deadline is crucial to postseason success. But how did the Penguins get to the point where they had to fire Mike Johnston? The answer is their defense.
Under Johnston, the Penguins struggled to perform a crucial part of the job, moving the puck efficiently to their star forwards. Mike Sullivan was able to remedy this with a fortunate acquisition of Trevor Daley and a shift in mentality to quicken the breakout out of the defensive zone. The result was one of the fastest teams we have seen in recent NHL history.
However even if Daley was healthy, this defensive group is suspect enough where the Sharks can take advantage. I’m not comparing this defense to another group the Sharks faced in the Los Angeles Kings, but Kris Letang is going to play a ridiculous amount of minutes in the same fashion as Drew Doughty and Duncan Keith did. If the Sharks are opportunists, Peter DeBoer will find a way to minimize the effect of Letang so other forwards can gain good scoring chances on the remaining defense.
I understand the Penguins’ defense is good enough to get the puck to their forwards and they could flip the script and target Brent Burns. But there is an opportunity to gain an advantage by putting pressure on the Pittsburgh defense.
Speaking of taking advantages of opportunities, a big factor in any series is special teams. In a sample size as small as four to seven games, one minor penalty can win the series. This is where the Sharks win without question. Throughout recent history, the Sharks have been great at possessing the puck and making the other teams chase. If Pittsburgh is winning the Stanley Cup, they need to stay out of the box, something the St. Louis Blues struggled with.
I talked about how the Sharks can take advantage of opportunities against the Penguins defense. But the Penguins will come across similar situations as well. Like any team playing the Penguins, the Sharks have to play against three different lines with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. That means one of them will always be on the ice at the same time as Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak. Imagining the HBK line playing against Polak is enough to give any Sharks fan nightmares.
If the third pairing is always trying to shut down one of the three star forwards on the Penguins roster, that means Martin Jones should be prepared to face tons of Grade-A scoring chances throughout this series. So I’m prepared for the Sharks to give up a couple of embarrassing goals in this series.
Speaking of goaltending, the position like special teams has the ability to swing a series towards either side. While Jones has been a pleasant experience for the Sharks, Matt Murray has been an even bigger story. After being a below-average goalie in the OHL for three seasons, Murray had a resurgence that vaulted him into contention for one of the best goalies in the NHL.
Ever since turning professional, Murray has not had a save percentage below .930. In case you didn’t know, that is good. Now I’m sure the Sharks have done their homework on Murray and they are prepared to face him. But I’m afraid the spectacular saves Murray is capable of will get into the Sharks head. To win this series, the Sharks must be persistent and not get flustered if their PDO goes south like in the past.
Let’s hope for the best when this series gets underway on Monday night as San Jose has been waiting 25 years for this opportunity.