Scouting Penguins – Sharks
The Stanley Cup Final gets underway tonight for Game 1 and it’s a fascinating series in how the teams are so similar and so close of a statistical matchup it is.
The Penguins and Sharks are both 12-6 in the playoffs.
San Jose is averaging 3.5 goals per game, Pittsburgh 3.2.
Pittsburgh has a combined power play/penalty kill percentage of 107%, San Jose 107.4%.
Two inexperienced goaltenders in Matt Murray and Martin Jones had 0 career playoff wins prior to the post-season. They now have 11 and 12 wins respectively.
There is such a major obsession with fancy stats in projecting Stanley Cup winners.
5 v 5 Pittsburgh is at 54% in Corsi For Percentage since January 1, San Jose 53%.
This matchup has it all from two teams with a ton of skill and speed, to storylines galore from future Hall-of-Famer Joe Thornton chasing his first Stanley Cup to Sidney Crosby getting that elusive second Stanley Cup.
Who has the Edge?
Forwards – Even
The Penguins have not faced the type of animal the Sharks are in the combination of speed, skill and size they have. On the flip side, San Jose hasn’t faced a team with an explosive speed game that Pittsburgh has.
But, the combination of speed/size is a whole new element Pittsburgh will have to deal with that neither Washington nor Tampa Bay had.
San Jose is a phenomenal checking team with speed/size that overwhelmed big physical teams like Los Angeles and St. Louis in the West.
To go with a scary power play, at even strength San Jose has been downright dominant. 62% of their playoff leading goals have been at even strength, Pittsburgh at 55%.
San Jose is +52 in 5 v 5 scoring chances, Pittsburgh +22.
What opposing coaches and players marvel about San Jose is how great they are at tracking the puck with back pressure. It’s a big reason the Sharks are allowing just 1.5 even strength goals against/60.
The Penguins are a team that crushes the opposition off the rush. A major strength for San Jose in the Nashville and St. Louis series was how they took away rush opportunities with a wall of four players back.
How the Sharks defend the Penguins off the rush will be a key element in this series.
Strength vs Strength
San Jose’s top players come into the Cup Final with a ton of momentum. Logan Couture leads the NHL with 24 playoff points, Joe Pavelski has been an unstoppable force with 13 goals and 22 points, Joe Thornton has been a catalyst in the playmaking department with 15 assists and 18 points.
The Sharks big three at the forward position has out-produced Pittsburgh’s big three (Crosby/Malkin/Kessel) 64-48 in combined playoff points.
Another series for the Penguins, more looming questions on how the opposition will defend the HBK line.
Mike Sullivan is a believer in going strength vs strength, which projects Sullivan to match the Sidney Crosby line up against the Hertl – Thornton – Pavelski line.
If that plays out, how do the Sharks go about the Malkin and Bonino lines?
The speed of Patrick Marleau and great two-way game of Couture looks to be the best route for the Sharks to go in matching up against the HBK line due to the blazing speed of Hagelin/Kessel on the wings. For San Jose, what do you do about the Malkin line if the chemistry Kunitz – Malkin – Rust had late in the Lightning series is just the start of things to come?
The Malkin line can be a major X-factor if they continue to trend up.
For Pittsburgh, one line they need to look to take advantage of with having the last change for Games 1 and 2, is the Sharks 4th line of Dainius Zubrus – Nick Spaling – Tommy Wingels.
Spaling and Zubrus are two weak links for San Jose and about the only one’s on that roster.
Pittsburgh’s skilled depth has a chance to sway this series more than San Jose’s and I think the Penguins are a bit deeper offensively, but with how high of a level San Jose’s top 5-6 forwards are playing, it’s hard to give either group an advantage.
Defensemen – Edge San Jose
Sharks defenseman Brent Burns is the most exciting player in hockey. The blend of speed and shot prowess for a 6-5, 230 pound defenseman is rarely seen and he’s been unbelievable in the playoffs with 20 points, after a 27 goal, 75 point regular season.
What allows Burns to play such a dynamic offensive game is the Sharks don’t have to rely on him being a shutdown pairing defenseman.
That’s the difference between how the Penguins have to utilize Kris Letang and the Sharks can utilize Burns.
Pittsburgh needs Letang to not only play 30 minutes a night against the oppositions top line, they also count on him to be their best offensive player from the backend.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic one of the NHL’s best shutdown defenders allows San Jose to let Burns think offense first.
Vlasic and d-partner Justin Braun have been the NHL’s best shutdown pairing in the playoffs, on the ice for 17 goals for and just 7 against.
Paul Martin is then the perfect complement for Burns as a pairing, rounding out the Sharks top-2 pairings.
San Jose’s top-2 pairings are superior to Pittsburgh’s and it’s not even a discussion.
That Sharks third pairing of Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak is one, though, that could be vulnerable and one that Pittsburgh needs to take advantage of with having the last change in Games 1 and 2.
For Pittsburgh, they went 2-1 without Trevor Daley but how they handle his loss against this Sharks team is going to be a daunting task.
What the Penguins’ get out of Olli Maatta will be a major key to Pittsburgh slowing the Sharks down offensively. Maatta’s gone three straight games without any major gaffes and was involved offensively late in the Lightning series. He simplified his game with quick outlet passes.
Was those three games just a mirage or has he found his game again?
We’ll find out soon enough.
Goaltending – Edge Pittsburgh
Matt Murray comes into the post-season 11-4 with a .924 save percentage. Martin Jones 12-6 with a .919 save percentage.
Murray after losing his starting job in Game 5 due to peer pressure Mike Sullivan had from many in the organization, came back in two elimination games to post a combined save percentage of .936.
At even strength, Jones has a .936 save percentage, Murray .935 save percentage.
The numbers show about an even matchup in goal but I’d give a slight edge to Pittsburgh with Murray being the better goaltender and even as shaky as Marc Andre Fleury looked in Game 5 and has barely played since late March, Pittsburgh clearly has the superior backup.
For Martin Jones, there are questions on how he’ll handle 35+ shots on a consistent basis this series if Pittsburgh continues to maintain their playoff average.
The Penguins put up a large volume of shots. They are averaging 35.1 shots per game, while allowing just 29 shots per game. The best way to defending is having the puck and that’s been a staple of the Penguins under Mike Sullivan.
San Jose on the other hand is averaging just 28 shots per game, while giving up 27.1 per game.
In their last nine games, San Jose has only allowed 30 shots or more once.
Jones is 0-3 in his last three playoff games when the Sharks allow 27 Want the Full Story? Get "Inside Access"