If you can put the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs in only one word, it would be this: UNPREDICTABLE.
Who would have thought that the two teams that have represented in the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final in the last four years — the Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings — would have their postseason run end after only just one round?
Who would have thought that the New York Islanders would win a playoff series for the first time in 23 years?
Who would have thought that the St. Louis Blues would the last Central Division team standing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
Who would have thought that the San Jose Sharks would finally make the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in their quarter-century history of their franchise?
Who would have thought that the Pittsburgh Penguins would make it back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2009 WITHOUT Marc-Andre Fleury as the starting goaltender?
If you’d ask me those five questions before the Stanley Cup Playoffs started, I would’ve said “you’re crazy.” But it happened, and now, the Sharks and the Penguins will battle it out for the oldest trophy in North American professional sports. The Penguins are looking to become the ninth team in NHL history to win at least four Stanley Cup championships. The Sharks are looking to become the nineteenth active NHL franchise to win the Stanley Cup, and the third California-based team to win the Stanley Cup in the last five years.
In the regular season, the Sharks and the Penguins split the two-game season series, with the road team winning each game. Brent Burns scored twice in the Sharks’ 3-1 game in Pittsburgh on November 21. Evgeni Malkin scored the game-winning goal and had a 3-point night in the Penguins 5-1 win in San Jose on December 1. The two games were played when Mike Johnston was still the Penguins head coach. Both teams have since played differently. The Sharks’ road-warrior mentality, highlighted by a franchise record of 28 wins away from the Shark Tank, lead them back to the Playoffs after failing to qualify for the playoffs last year. After firing Mike Johnston in December and replacing him with assistant coach Mike Sullivan, the Penguins went 33-16-5, en route to second place in the Metropolitan Division. In the Playoffs, both teams won a series in five games (Sharks vs. Kings; Penguins vs NY Rangers), six games (Sharks vs. Blues; Penguins vs Capitals), and seven games (Sharks vs. Predators; Penguins vs NY Rangers), Can the Sharks stop the HBK Line? Can Matt Murray validate himself as the Penguins goalie of today after beginning the season in Wilkes-Barre? Can Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Joel Ward end their own personal drought and finally get their names on the Stanley Cup? Can Sidney Crosby match Mario Lemieux by winning a second Cup ring? Are the San Jose Sharks really a team of Destiny after a quarter-century of highs, lows, and shortcomings? Is Pittsburgh’s defense deep enough after losing Trevor Daley to a broken ankle? All I can tell you is that the 2016 Stanley Cup Final looks like a virtual coin-flip. But if I had to chose only one team to win the Stanley Cup, it’s the team that has more experience, the team that’s firing on all six cylinders, and the team looking to finally get the monkey off their back FOR GOOD.
Prediction: SJ in 6