2016 Stanley Cup Finals Preview

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The Stanley Cup finals are here and for two teams there is still a chance at winning the ultimate prize in the sport.

Teams spend plenty of time and money looking to get to this point in the season where they are only four wins away from a Stanley Cup.

Different theories are created on how to build a championship team and people make their careers off of getting a team to the Cup.

It isn’t easy though as much more have lost their jobs for not even getting close to the Cup.

There are another 27 teams that couldn’t figure it out this year and a handful that haven’t figured it out in a very long time.

In fact, both teams that are in the Finals are no strangers to the struggle of making their way to the Stanley Cup, albeit in differing degrees.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have had their moments as they won the Stanley Cup three times throughout their franchise history.

They got the first two when Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr were there to carry the load as a great pairing for the Penguins.

That same strategy led to another Stanley Cup when the Penguins drafted Evgeni Malkin in 2004 and won the draft lottery to select Sidney Crosby first overall a year later.

That pairing carried the Penguins out of the basement and as they developed thoughts about the best post-lockout franchise centred around Pittsburgh.

The Penguins got their payoff in the 2008-09 season when they returned to the top of the league and won a Stanley Cup.

The expectation was that the Pens were getting ready to run the league with a young talented team that included the best player in hockey.

That wasn’t the case though as the Penguins couldn’t find their way back to the finals since they won the Cup.

They were quickly becoming a team known more for their playoff exits than their dominance in his new era.

Of course the Penguins never truly got that moniker and a big part of that was the San Jose Sharks who have been considered one of the worst playoff teams in recent memory.

The Sharks have never won the Stanley Cup and have never even been to the final until this year.hockey-sidebar

They had won multiple President’s Trophies and came into plenty of playoffs looking like the team to beat.

Yet every time they went into the playoffs their issues were exposed, more often than not their goaltending, and they fell short of expectations.

No matter what they did the Sharks couldn’t find their way to the Finals after signing playoff players and drafting great talent they could never solve the mystery.

Both teams have had their experiences in falling just short of the Stanley Cup Finals and they know how fleeting success can be in professional sports.

The Penguins will enter another final looking to add a Cup to the accomplishments of some great players.

They have the best player in hockey and one of the top European players in the game both looking for their second Cup as they try to make good on the expectations laid on both of them when they were drafted.

The Sharks will enter their first ever Final with some good young talent but some great veterans who have stuck it out in San Jose through all of the tough years.

Players that have done everything but win a Stanley Cup are looking for this year to be their time to lift the Cup and bring it back to California.

Both teams go at it, neither lacking motivation but only one team can find their way to the top and take the title.

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At the start of the year, nobody could blame Penguins fans for looking to the future as the Penguins fell quickly through the standings. They looked far from the great team they had been only a few years ago and as the weeks went on they continued to fall out of competition. It was almost sure that they weren’t going to see the playoffs this year. Injuries and in general a lack of caring had made the Penguins one of the worst teams in the league. Then the organisation made a change firing Mike Johnstone and bringing in Mike Sullivan in a risky move that teams have done year after year. It was essentially the last chance as they needed to turn around before their deficit was too much to overcome. Some teams make a midseason coaching change and see little change while other teams have seen a complete turnaround after changing the man behind the bench. The Penguins were the latter as the introduction of Sullivan changed the season and brought the Penguins back. They were the best team in the NHL in the second half of the year and made an amazing run to the playoffs. Throughout the playoffs, they have continued that run although not as dominant as they were near the end of the season. They have made their mistakes and lost key games but have only been close to elimination once when they went to seven games against Tampa in the conference finals. The Penguins enter the finals with experience and skill while riding some unexpected stars as they look for their second cup in the last decade.

The Penguins have always had the skill with Crosby and Malkin leading the way but this team is slightly different. They still look to Crosby and Malkin to lead them but like in many playoffs they are not difficult to shut down when a team can focus on them. That is where the secondary scoring and some key moves in the off-season have paid dividends. Additions like Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh’s leading playoff scorer, and Nick Bonino, second in playoff points for Pittsburgh, are coming up huge in the playoffs. Through in some timely scoring from players like Carl Hagelin, Brian Dumoulin, and Bryan Rust and the Penguins offence is tough to stop throughout the playoffs. The loss of Trevor Daly in the last round certainly hurt the Penguins and their defensive corps but there are still plenty of solid players. Dumoulin has stepped in alongside Kris Letang and both have produced on either side of the ice. Both will be relied upon much like against Tampa as their other pairings are good but to as dependable. One of the biggest surprises for the Penguins in the playoffs has been behind those blue-liners though. Rookie goalie, Matt Murray spent most of his time in Wilkes-Barre this season but became a permanent fixture when Marc-Andre Fleury went down with a concussion late in the season. He served as a back-up to end the season and didn’t see any time in their first two games. In Game 3 he got the start and backstopped the Pens to three straight wins and the first round series win. Murray has been the starter since then, aside from one poor decision to start Fleury against Tampa after a loss that led to another loss. He has been great and even earned a spot on Team North America for the World Cup in September. The Penguins seem to be a team built to win as they are deep on offence and have a good defence to protect a hot goalie. Still they do often rely on their offence to carry them and when Crosby and Malkin struggle to put up points it puts more pressure on players that are not meant to be key pieces. The Penguins are still a great team but if the Sharks can find ways to out-score them they may struggle to keep up.

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The San Jose Sharks have tried just about everything to get to this point in a season and nothing has ever worked. They’ve been through young stars and veterans along with a few goalies but still had never seen the finals. They couldn’t seem to find the recipe to get them to the finals as early exits became the norm and the Sharks became one of the worst playoff teams in the NHL. Nobody could tell if that was the case, this time, around as another year brought some new players that the Sharks were hoping could turn things around. The Sharks did essentially what was expected of them this year, as they do every year in the regular season. They were among the best teams in the Pacific division sitting alongside the other California teams. It wasn’t anything new for the Sharks as they had been there before only to fall in the playoffs to teams that continued playing well into the playoffs. The true test was coming up as the Sharks entered the playoffs set to take on the Los Angeles Kings, a team that sent them home early multiple times. This time was different though as the Sharks took control of the series beating the Kings in five games. They went into another tough series against the Nashville Predators and at points, the doubt crept in until they finally took the series win in seven games. In the conference finals, the Sharks were in control for the majority of the six games against the St. Louis Blues. It seemed sure that the Sharks were headed to the finals and they made good on that earning a win in Game 6 to get their first final berth.

The Sharks are finally here but they will need to keep things up if they want to send some very deserving veterans home with their first Cup. Chief among them Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau who have been with the Sharks through all of the early playoff exits. Marleau had played a total of 1,411 games without reaching a final while Thornton had 1,356 games without seeing the Stanley Cup Finals. Neither are necessarily leading things on the scoresheet but they are certainly a big motivation for the entire team to get a win. Both have put up points but this year the playoffs have belonged to Joe Pavelski who leads the league with 18 playoff goals while Logan Couture leads the league with 24 playoff points. The Sharks are a great offensive team with Pavelski, Couture, Marleau, and Thornton all getting in on the action alongside Brent Burns, Joel Ward, Tomas Hertl, and Joonas Donskoi. It is a deep group with more than a few players that have proven to be goal scorers for a while in the NHL. On the blue-line the Sharks enjoy the presence of Burns who is one of the best defencemen in the game alongside his partner Paul Martin who plays a good compliment to an offensive minded player. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is part of a solid second pairing and has been getting plenty of minutes as the Sharks have a balance on the blue-line. Behind these great defencemen is the biggest off-season addition that the Sharks made and a major reason for their success. Martin Jones was a young back-up in Los Angeles with plenty of promise and a lot of interest. The Sharks landed the goalie from Boston just days after he was traded to the Bruins and in the playoffs nobody else has seen the ice. He seems to be the piece that the Sharks had been missing for the last few years as he has been solid the entire time which gives the rest of the team freedom to do what they do best rather than trying to make sure the puck doesn’t get to the net. The Sharks are a different team this year and they are clearly on a mission to hand their veterans the Cup. Still they are the Sharks and many are waiting for that classic collapse where the offence stops and the defence can’t do much to help. They will be in tough against a very good Pittsburgh team that is playing great at the right time. Still they have a better offence and arguably a better overall defence giving them a reason to hope for their first ever Stanley Cup.

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