The Penguins will win The Stanley Cup in five games over San Jose.
That’s my prediction and I offer several factors explaining why this species of Penguins will fly:
1. Pittsburgh beat the Rangers, Capitals and Lightning one way and another.
2. Mike Sullivan is an insightful, calm, brilliant players’ coach.
3. Everyone outside of Pennsylvania wants the Sharks to win.
4. The Penguins are faster, younger and have more stars.
5. Sullivan’s club is deeper from goal to stickboy.
6. I’m rooting for the Californians.
And if you don’t believe me, listen up to head coach Jon Cooper whose Lightning sextet was Penguin-punted out of the playoffs on Thursday night.
“Pittsburgh is fast,” Cooper asserts, “and they get right on you. They play defense well, block a lot of shots and play hard. They make it tough for the opposition to generate offense. Their amount of shot blocks was incredible.”
One could say that the shot-blocking was done to protect goalie Matt Murray but when the rookie was challenged he was up to the task. His one-on-one save off Steve Stamkos who had the tying puck on his stick is Exhibit A.
How will the Penguins de-tooth the Sharks? Coach Sullivan isn’t secretive about the answer:
“We want to play in the Sharks face,” he insists, “and keep the ‘gaps’ tight so we take some of their speed away and their ability to stretch the ice. We’ve got to continue to pursue to skate.”
“I want them to play the game we’ve tried to play for five months; where we play to our strengths. When we play that way we’re a hard team to beat. In Game 7 it was the most complete 60-minute effort we’ve had.”
If Sullivan has created a juggernaut, the Sharks — in their first Final ever — have done well by coach Peter DeBoer, who guided the Devils to the fourth round in 2012. Pistol Pete sees a similarity between New Jersey and his current club.
“I inherited a similar team in New Jersey when I went in there,” DeBoer recalls. “First time they missed the playoffs for a long time the year before I got there.”
“Same thing with this (Sharks) group. They’re pissed off, embarrassed by the year they just had. They’re willing to do and buy into whatever you’re selling to get it fixed again.”
DeBoer’s platform has been supported by the forward core — Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture — and ace defenseman Brent Burns.
But it’s the newcomers who have given the Sharks new bite. Ex-Devil Paul Martin has steadied the defense working alongside Burns while ex-Capital Joel Ward has delivered clutch playoff goals.
Some observers believe that the one time whipping-boy Sharks are just happy to be in the Final but don’t tell that to Thornton.
“That is not the end goal,” Jumbo Joe insists. “I’ll tell you right now.”
Well, right now I’ll tell you that it’s time to see how these rivals match up with each other:
GOALTENDING — Martin Jones cost the Sharks a 2016 first-round pick and a prospect, and his playoff performances underline his worth. Teammates not only appreciate his style but also that he’s cool under fire. Wins over the Kings, Predators and Blues seal the verdict.
DEFENSE — Brent Burns is to San Jose what Kris Letang is to Pitt but more so. Paul Martin has been a natural partner for the freewheeling Burns. Stalwart Marc-Edouard Vlasic — not bad on offense either — remains the Sharks’ most reliable defender while Justin Braun (Plus-11) improved on a sub-par 2014-15 season. The addition of Roman Polak has been a boost as well.
OFFENSE — The Big Three (Thornton-Pavelski-Marleau) powered the arsenal while young Tomas Hertl (Plus-16) began fulfilling his potential. Battle-hardened Joel Ward has emerged as a vital playoff cog. Center Logan Couture has matured into the club’s leading playoff scorer. Still it’s defenseman Burns who contributes so much to the attack; he’s third in playoff points behind Couture and Pavelski.
INTANGIBLES — Leadership once had been an issue but giving the captaincy to the indomitable Pavelski solved that problem while among the back liners the cool, calm, collected Martin has enhanced that department.
SPECIAL TEAMS — One, of many, reasons why Martin was signed had to do with the penalty kill. “Paul’s been a staple on everybody’s penalty kill (Pittsburgh’s too) since he entered the league,” says DeBoer. Martin’s insights into the Penguins power play should also help dismember it. San Jose’s power play has been one of the club’s postseason assets and will be necessary to provide an edge.
X-FACTOR — Players were not on the same page with previous coach Todd McLellan, who left by mutual agreement. DeBoer and GM Doug Wilson see eye to eye on how to get things done and the players all are on board.
COACHING — DeBoer’s success in lifting the Sharks to hitherto unknown heights says it all. A+.
GOALTENDING — Once upon a time Matt Murray was third — and last — on the club’s goalie depth chart but that seems long ago. The Main Man now that he’s bested formerly-injured Marc-Andre Fleury and Jeff Zatkoff, Murray has been the sensation who’s rocked Pens Nation. Indefatigable and indomitable, Murray should go the route but should there be issues, Fleury is there to step in with considerable playoff experience.
DEFENSE — Kris Letang is the undisputed anchor on the blue line and — when controlling his temper — at the very top of his game. What earlier appeared to be the Pens’ weak underbelly, the defense shined against Tampa Bay. Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy, Brian Dumoulin each have grown in stature and ability. Youthful Olli Maatta has suffered slumps but rallied in Game 7 vs. the Bolts.
OFFENSE — It’s not just the usual suspects — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz — but other Penguins have dived into the crusade. Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, and Tom Kuhnhackl have become major players. When the big guns were silenced in Game 7, Rust provided both goals in the 2-1 win. “Those guys were huge,” says Sullivan. “They are what made us the team we are.”
INTANGIBLES — Until Sullivan replaced fired Mike Johnston there was a growing sense that the window of opportunity was closing. Sully’s arrival was a tonic and a positive sense of urgency permeates the room as the Penguins prepare for the Final round. GM Jim Rutherford did well, obtaining forwards Nick Bonino, Carl Hagelin and Eric Fehr plus offensive-defenseman Justin Schultz. Each has been a positive contributor.
SPECIAL TEAMS — The addition of Kessel has provided Sullivan with a scary power play. Passing is crisp and creative supplanted by howitzer shots. The penalty-killing helped topple Tampa and should be up for the task against an excellent PP combo in San Jose. Speedy Hagelin has invigorated the PK.
X-FACTOR — After being the whipping boy for too many years in Toronto, Kessel is breathing fresh air in his new digs. Phil freely admits that getting to the Final is one of the most exhilarating experiences of his hockey life. He has responded in the playoffs and that explains why the Penguins are alive and kicking.
COACHING — The measuring stick for Sullivan is not unlike that for DeBoer. Under Mike, Pittsburgh has become the best team in the NHL. This season, Sullivan will coach a max of 79 games. Yet he was mistakenly left off the list for the Jack Adams Award, I’m sure he’ll take the Cup as a solid prize.
PREDICTION: Pittsburgh in five. Reason? Too much skill and firepower in too many places.