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Stanley Cup Final Preview: Storylines Aplenty in What Has Makings of Sharks-Penguins Classic

From Thornton to Crosby, Kessel to Marleau, the narrative machine will be running wild as the Sharks search for redemption. Down Goes Brown previews the Stanley Cup Final.
Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Stanley Cup Final begins tomorrow night, with the Pittsburgh Penguins hosting the San Jose Sharks. It's an unlikely matchup, but a very good one, and the series has the potential to showcase some great hockey featuring some of the league's biggest stars. Here's how it all breaks down.

In this corner: The Eastern Conference champion Pittsburgh Penguins (48-26-8, +42 true goals differential). The Pens finished second in both the conference and the Metro Division, behind only the Presidents' Trophy winning Washington Capitals.


The road so far: They had a relatively easy time with the Rangers in round one, then knocked off those same Capitals in a tough second-round series. On Thursday, they finished off the Lightning in seven to win a series they'd trailed through five games.

Kris Letang: The X-factor. -Photo by Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The history books: The Penguins are making their fifth appearance in the final and gunning for their fourth Cup. The first two of those came in 1991 and 1992, when Mario Lemieux and a teenaged Jaromir Jagr led a ridiculously stacked team of future Hall of Famers. It's the third appearance in the finals for the Crosby-era team, which made back-to-back trips in 2008 and 2009 against the Red Wings, losing the first and winning the second. Back then, it seemed inconceivable that it would take that team seven years to get back.

READ MORE: Why We Never Have to Compare Crosby and Ovechkin Ever Again

Injury report: They're relatively healthy, with the only major piece missing being Trevor Daley, who broke his ankle against the Lightning. Daley doesn't carry the star power of some of the team's bigger names, but he was eating some tough minutes on the blueline, ranking second on the team in average ice time.

One player to watch: Kris Letang. Blueline depth was never the Penguins' strong point; unlike other teams (including San Jose), they don't have the luxury of a No. 2 guy who could be a No. 1 somewhere else. That's left Letang to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and he's done it well, looking like a Norris candidate this year. But with Daley out, he may end up playing 30-plus minutes some nights during this series. He's battled injuries over the years, and he's already earned one suspension this postseason with another near miss. With apologies to Crosby and his high-scoring friends, the Penguins could afford to lose any other player more than Letang.


Key number: 0—Number of times Bryan Rust had scored goals in back-to-back games over the course of his NHL career before doing it in Games 6 and 7 to help the Penguins come back to beat the Lightning. That seventh game was also his second two-goal game of the playoffs, something else he'd never done before this spring. Every Cup champion needs a few unexpected guys to overachieve at the right times, and Rust has been doing it for the Penguins.

Dominant narrative: Sidney Crosby's legacy. The hockey world loves to separate its stars into winners and losers; the guys who Rise To The Occasion versus the ones who Just Can't Get It Done. There's no bigger star than Crosby, and over the last few weeks there's been some questions over which group he belongs in. That was especially true after the Penguins fell behind the Lightning with Crosby slumping by his standards, going 11 games without a multi-point night.

When you've had enough of the hot takes –Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of that analysis was, well, not good, and it seems ridiculous to question the winning pedigree of a 28-year-old who's already captained a Cup winner and two Olympic gold medalists. But being ridiculous never stopped this stuff in the past, so expect to hear plenty about whether Crosby is displaying enough winner-heart-grit-compete over the next two weeks. If the Penguins lose, expect more heat on Crosby, regardless of whether he actually deserves it. If they win, he gets Certified Winner status, and becomes impervious to any further criticism. (At least for a few more years.)


The big question: Matt Murray is the guy, right? He took over the starting duties due to Marc-Andre Fleury's concussion, and held it until Game 5 of the Lightning series, when Mike Sullivan went back to his veteran. It was widely viewed as a mistake (although maybe not as dumb as it seemed); Fleury looked rusty, the Penguins lost the game, and Murray was back in net for Game 6. We all assume that's going to be a permanent state of affairs in this series, but Sullivan has planted just enough doubt that you wonder what it would take for him to make another switch.

OGWAC factor: The OGWAC, or "Old Guy Without A Cup," is a cherished playoff tradition. Most teams have at least one older player, maybe even a guy in the last season of his career, who's never won a Stanley Cup. It's impossible not to root for that guy; if his team wins, he's often the first one to have the Cup handed to him, and you can count on lots of postgame photos of him hugging it and crying. Hockey fans eat this stuff up.

So who's the best OGWAC left on the Penguins? Well… there really isn't one. There isn't a single guy on the roster who remotely qualifies as "old" and hasn't already won. Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz already have rings. The oldest guy on the team without his name on the Cup is Ben Lovejoy, but he's only 32 (and had a small role on the Penguins' 2009 team). Eric Fehr is only 30. The team's best OGWAC may not even be a player at all; assistant coach Jacques Martin is making his first trip to the final in a 30-year NHL career.


Then again, maybe Phil Kessel should count. He's technically only 28, but playing in Toronto ages a guy 10 years.

I'm so thankful to be with guys now. –Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Unexpected postseason mascot: Shawn Michaels, the former WWE champion who doesn't know anything about hockey but became a fan thanks to Kessel, because Phil Kessel can do anything.

Bandwagon-ability: Solid. Hockey fans have always had a weird relationship with Crosby and the Penguins, thanks to the league's efforts to make them front and center in any marketing (and TV schedules, and outdoor games, and… you get the point). So it feels a little front-runnery to climb on board with them now. But this is still a likable team, one packed with talent and some fun stories. Who doesn't like the idea of a virtually unknown rookie goalie coming out of nowhere to lead his team to a Cup? Who can't appreciate a midseason coaching change that turns a season around? And look, if you're not solidly on board with Kessel by now, then there's something wrong with you. Look at this face! You can't root against that guy. It's not possible.

One photo to get you on board: Here's Rust dressed as Kessel's hot dog for Halloween.

Reminder: Bryan Rust went as Phil Kessel's hot dog for Halloween so we should all love him — Penguina Bandwagoner (@50_MissionCap)April 23, 2016

Old YouTube clip to get you fired up: Fleury robs Nicklas Lidstrom in the dying seconds of Game 7 of the 2009 final.

I've always felt like this moment doesn't get the credit it deserves. This is the best player on the reigning champs, somehow all alone with the puck on his stick and literally one second left in a one-goal Game 7, and he's robbed on a desperate, diving save. Yeah, it's considered memorable, but on merit it should be right up there with Bobby Orr's flying goal as one of the greatest moments in NHL history, shouldn't it?



And in this corner: The Western Conference champion San Jose Sharks (46-30-6, +30), who finished sixth in the West and were the Pacific's third seed.

The road so far: After slaying a few demons by dispatching the Kings in five games in the opening round, the Sharks needed seven to fend off the Predators and just finished a hard-fought six-game win over the Blues.

For what it's worth, you might assume that it's rare for a team that didn't even have home-ice advantage in the opening round to win a Cup, but that hasn't been the case recently. Three of the last four Cup winners started the playoffs on the road.

The history books: This is their first ever trip to the final, one that follows years of playoff heartbreak that firmly established them as the team that would rack up regular-season wins but just couldn't get it done when it mattered. That reputation has haunted the Sharks in recent years, costing coaches jobs and, after they blew a 3-0 series lead to the Kings in 2014, causing GM Doug Wilson to vow to rebuild.

When the core group gets it done. –Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

He never really did, and that's led to some debate over whether he wisely decided to be patient or simply had his hands tied by bad contracts and no-trade clauses. But either way, this year felt like the Sharks' last chance to finally break through, at least as far as the Thornton/Marleau era was concerned. And now they have.

Injury report: Matthew Nieto is the biggest name on the injury report, meaning the Sharks are essentially going into the final healthy. That's playoff healthy, of course, which means we'll probably find out that a few of them have been playing through a collapsed lung once the series ends, but it's still a good sign.


One player to watch: Marc-Edouard Vlasic. The Sharks have flashier players, like Joe Thornton, Brent Burns and Logan Couture. Those guys get lots of well-deserved attention (we featured them in this section for rounds one, two and three, respectively). But this time let's focus on Vlasic, a guy who isn't always quite as noticeable, especially when he's playing well.

The concept of the defensive defenseman has fallen on hard times in today's NHL, with analytics and modern thinking painting many of them as guys who stay at home because they just don't have enough skill to move the puck. But Vlasic is one of the few defensive defensemen who still rates highly on just about everyone's board, in part because he's never fit the "when in doubt, out" credo. He won't light up the scoresheet—he's never cracked 40 points—but he can shut down the other team's top players. That skill was on display in the conference final, as Vlasic dominated his matchup with Vladimir Tarasenko. If that's not enough, he's chipping in more offense than usual, to the tune of 11 points in 18 games.

Vlasic isn't what you'd call underrated—we're talking about a guy who keeps getting named to Team Canada, after all. But he's a guy who can occasionally fly under the radar because he's so good at preventing more exciting players from having an impact. Against the explosive Penguins, he'll be asked to help shut down some of the most talented players in the world. Not many guys are better suited for handling that assignment.


Key number: 13—Playoff goals by Joe Pavelski, good for the league lead. Like we said, the Sharks have a lot of weapons, and most of them are hot right now. None more so than Pavelski, the Sharks' captain who may be leading the Conn Smythe race. Not bad for a seventh-round pick.

READ MORE: Joe Thornton is Thriving in Post-Captaincy

Against the Blues, the unit of Pavelski, Thornton and Tomas Hertl often looked unstoppable. The Sharks are a more top-heavy team than the Penguins, so the first line's continued production looms as a crucial factor in their chances.

Dominant narrative: Redemption. Absolution. Taking two decades of Those Games, gathering them into a big flammable pile, lightning a match and watching all of the pain go up in flames.

The big question: Is it weird that we got this far into the section without mentioning Martin Jones? Typically, the starting goaltender is one of the first names that comes up when breaking down a team's chances. But Jones, as good as he's been, has occasionally seemed like an afterthought over the course of this Sharks' run. Maybe that's a good thing—at this time of year, a forgotten goaltender is a goaltender who's not burying his team's chances. But Jones deserves credit for some stellar play, including the back-to-back shutouts in the conference final that somehow resulted in the Blues blaming their own goaltender for a lack of offense.

OGWAC factor: Off the charts. Thornton and Marleau represent the two best OGWAC stories in this year's playoffs, and it's not close. But there's also Paul Martin and Joel Ward, both of whom are making their first trip to the final at 35. And then there's Dainius Zubrus, whose career spans six teams and two decades. He's been largely forgotten in San Jose, where he's handling third- and fourth-line duties and has been an occasional scratch; this is probably his last chance at a ring. And the whole thing was built by Wilson, who had a 16-year NHL career without winning it all (but whose brother won several).


Beards: check. OGWACs: check. – Photo by Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

I don't say this lightly: The Sharks may be the greatest OGWAC team of all time.

Unexpected postseason mascot: Joe Paw-velski, the black cat who ran onto the ice during the Nashville series and has become the team's good luck charm. He even has his own merchandise.

Bandwagon-ability: Let's not overthink this. Are you already a Penguins fan? No? Then you should be cheering for the Sharks. It's really that simple. We'll make exceptions for conscientious objectors from the Battle of California, but everyone else needs to be on board.

Photo to get you on board: Vlasic's small army of dogs, who will probably cry if the Sharks lose.

We're happy you made it to the — Marc-Édouard Vlasic (@Vlasic44)May 27, 2016

Old YouTube clip to get you fired up: This is going to seem like a weird pick, but bear with me:

That, of course, is the final out of the 2004 World Series, with the Red Sox finally capturing their first championship since 1918. The Sharks' tortured history may not stretch anywhere near as long, but the opportunity here is the same. For decades, the Red Sox were the punchline, the team that would always find a way to break your heart. But they flushed that narrative with one championship, and today there's a whole generation of baseball fans who have no recollection of it.

Of course, there's a flip side: The 2004 World Series appearance was Boston's first since 1986, one that ended with one of the sport's most infamous moments of misery. Those are the stakes for the Sharks here. Win, and the choker reputation dies forever. Lose, and there's a chance it mutates into something even worse.

Those are the two options. No pressure.


So who wins? We've gone 10-4 on predictions in this space so far, which is decent but not quite good enough to warrant a spoiler warning tag. This should be a fun a series, and it also feels like a long one. But only one team gets to skate the Cup around the rink when it's over.

Prediction: The Sharks get it done, winning a seven-game classic.

Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: Thornton captures the Conn Smythe in a close vote that doubles as a belated mea culpa for years of bad narratives.