In early December, it was impossible to think Pittsburgh and San Jose would reach the Stanley Cup Finals according to NHL odds, with both teams off to crummy starts.
San Jose Sharks vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
But both teams turned their seasons around and while the stars of each team still matter, it is the sum of the parts which is why both are still playing.
In the new NHL, your team better have blazing speed or burly players that can be physical, with nothing in between. Pittsburgh and San Jose fit the former, with speed at all positions.
In searching for key to series, know that in the last 24 Cup Finals contests, the visitor has won 11 of 24 and the Penguins this season are 33-18 SU on the road the Sharks are 33-17 SU. Because Pitt at least has home ice advantage, Bookmaker has them as -150 NHL odds favorites to take home the hardware.
Let's look into each squads strengths and weaknesses.
Why San Jose Wins
This is San Jose first trip to this point of the season. In years past they were often a favorite, but not this year, with too many teams considered better than them. However, the Sharks gained steam late in the season and being the best road crew in the league gave them confidence and after burying Los Angeles in opening series, they believed, their confidence grew and nothing was going to stop them. In each series, stars Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski have come through and coach Peter DeBoer and his staff have been flawless in game plans and San Jose certainly has what it takes to win this series.
Why Pittsburgh Wins
While Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are in the headlines, Pittsburgh is here for the first time since 2009 because they found the right pieces to assemble with this power trio. Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel have been of greater importance most nights than Crosby and Malkin and the youth movement not only brought skill, but the type of speed the Penguins needed with the likes of Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl, Brian Dumoulin and, of course, goaltender Matt Murray. Pittsburgh wins by playing as a unit and keeping the pressure on San Jose's defense.
Why San Jose Loses
Though Thornton and Pavelski are the leaders, this is new experience and how they embrace it and perform will have direct impact on San Jose. Pittsburgh has more players who can create situations than any team they have faced in the postseason. With the Sharks in virgin territory as a franchise, do they shine under the hot lights or turn into guppies with the pressure on?
Why Pittsburgh Loses
Similar to San Jose, this is rather imposing stage and while the veteran players remember what it is like, seven years in the hockey sense is a lifetime ago. At this time, this is truly where Crosby and Malkin have to take charge to show the younger players how to handle the pressure. If they do not, San Jose has the talent and speed to take this away from Pittsburgh.
The Bottom Line
The matchup is fascinating. Place little value on the regular season contests in which the visitor won both, as they last met nearly six months ago as far different teams. Also, don't worry about the young goaltenders. While there have been questions about both Matt Murray and Matt Jones in net, they have come through in each series and whoever ends up losing it will be more about the defense than the guys with the big pads.
After having a very good regular season making selections, my track record in the playoffs has been spotty, but overall in personal wagering as NHL handicapper, I am 7-2 in picking series.
I would actually be happy to see San Jose breakthrough as a franchise for first Cup, but in the end, I believe Pittsburgh has more scoring options. I thought the winner Penguins and Capitals series would raise Lord Stanley's Cup and for NHL picks I will stand by that thought.
Series Pick: Pittsburgh Penguins (6 or 7 games)