So many story lines coming into this series, and that does not even include the fact that the NHL chose to go head to head with the NBA Western Conference Final game 7 tonight. That should not be a story, but don’t think for a second that the National Media will not make it at least part of the overall story by tomorrow. Especially the NBA Media and major media outlets like ESPN that have the tie in with the NBA. The NBA loves their dominance over the other sports(minus the NFL of course), but especially the NHL. Though, to be completely honest, I am not convinced the NHL cares all that much. With that said, here are some Hockey Related Story lines to consider.
Injuries: The Pens had both Bonino and Letang on the ice today for the game day skate which means they should be good to go for tonight, barring any shenanigans by the Pens coaching staff.
Goalie: No surprise, Matt Murray is the starter tonight and going forward. There have been no announcements, nor will there be at this point, Murray will be the goalie of the Pens going forward. Ron Cook from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, an amazing writer and local sports personality wrote a story this morning about what an amazing team player and team mate that Marc-Andre Fleury is. Here is the LINK. With that said, that situation is the Pink Elephant in the room and no matter how much Fleury is the good guy and tries to stay below the radar and just prepare himself to HELP out, it is still an issue. Both Fleury and Murray have done a terrific job squashing the issue, but no one can pretend it is not one.
Pittsburgh’s Stars: All we have heard for weeks is how the Stars have to come out and play their best. I think we have seen that but there just has not been lots of Goal production by Sid and Geno. Although Sid’s goals have been probably the most meaningful of the last series. With that said, I think Mike Sullivan has created a culture and scheme that allows all lines to produce and no one or two persons has to carry the load. It works for this group and for this organization. Although the goals have not been plentiful for either Sid or Geno’s lines, the work and talent has helped carry this group. The Sid and Geno lines allow the HBK line to succeed in such a big way. While all along, the Pens get contributions from all the other lines, though not as much from the Hagelin, Kessel, Bonino line.(HBK) Whether it is the system, scheme, or plan it just doesn’t matter. It works and the Pens GM should be very satisfied and proud he was able to put this together.
Winning The Same Way: For those in the East that did not follow San Jose, the fact is the Sharks turned their season around in a very similar way as the Pens did. They got hot in January and never let up. Both teams were the respective best in their conference from that point on. They do it with speed and puck control. Sound familiar?
San Jose’s Stars: San Jose has one of the best goal scoring Centerman in the Hockey right now with Joe Pavelski. He finished the season with 38 goals, and has tallied 13 more in the 18 post season games. For those wondering if he can distribute, he had 40 assists during the regular season and 9 more in the post season. He is a certifiable star and he could be the best player the Pens have skated up against this post season. Couple that with the likes of Joe Thornton, who just might be the best set up man in the business with his 63 assists in the regular season and another 15 during the post season, this team is set up to win a cup. In Thornton’s last 18 games versus the Pens, he has tallied 18 points. He has won 12 of the match ups against the Pens also. One might say, as Joe goes, this team goes. Martin Jones is the Sharks goalie and he has been very good this season and post season though Murray’s stats are slightly more impressive. Jones has been part of a cup run before, just like many of the players on their team and has the experience the Pens goalie lacks. Martin was a back up to Jonathan Quick in LA. Brent Burns is another guy that can not be forgotten as he was a scoring machine this season. He has also averaged more than a point a game in the playoffs and is just as big a threat to score as he is to set one of his guys up. The Sharks big three lead the League in Post Season play overall in points. I guess you could say, enough said.
Observations: This from the outside looks fairly even with regards to team play and speed. San Jose leads the league in The Post Season with 17 power play goals, while the Pens have 15. Fairly close there. San Jose is converting at a clip of 27% and the Pens just over 23%. It is important for both teams to convert on special teams, but it will be just as important for both teams to play well on the Kill. The Pens are in the top five with a kill percentage of 83.6 where as San Jose is just over 80%. As i said, both teams are fairly equal which should make for a very entertaining series. The Pens won their only game in San Jose this season by the score of 5-1 and the Sharks took the only game in Pittsburgh 3-1. Sounds just as even. The Sharks are an extremely good road team so the Pens have to do everything they can to at minimum split in Pittsburgh and hope for a good showing on the road. Anything less will be a death nail. As far as Vegas goes, the Pens are favorites right now. That will fluctuate as we go I am sure.
My Prediction: This is going to be really good series as I have written. And to this point, I just have no feeling one way or the other. In the Eastern Conference Tournament, I felt like the Pens were the best team in the East for the second half of the season. It was easier for me to give predictions. With that said, I can only ride the fence for so long so here is my take. I believe the Pens 4 lines continue to score. I also think that the third line, AKA The HBK line will be the difference in the series. I think the top two lines of the Sharks may edge the Pens top two lines with regards to production. But I think the Pens will get a huge lift from that Dynamic third line and just enough from the fourth line that the Penguins edge the Sharks in seven games. Also, I think Kris Letang figures out a way to pull his head out of his rear and not retaliate at every little thing that happens to be a difference maker. I said it yesterday in a conversation with a close friend, The Pens go as Letang goes. That is in fact, completely opposite of what I have said in the past, and I am okay with being not only wrong but ridiculously wrong. It is Not his scoring, but his defensive prowess sets the tone for this team. If he plays well, and the Pens get offensive production as I think they will, they win in seven. Murray will be steady and at times spectacular as needed.
Coach Mike Sullivan: