Penguins stars pose stiffest test yet for Sharks

The Pittsburgh Penguins might be the Sharks’ antithesis off the ice, with “they’ve been here before” praises abound, but San Jose has more in common with their final roadblock to the silver chalice than any team they’ve faced thus far.

Pittsburgh forward Sidney Crosby’s third trip to the Stanley Cup Final and San Jose’s first look uncomfortably similar in structure.

There’s a new coach at the helm in Mike Sullivan, a wealth of power up front and a stable of serviceable role-players to fill the bottom lines. Like the Sharks, the Penguins started slowly this season before accelerating into a post-season run characterized by offensive prowess.

After showing former coach Mike Johnston the door in favor of Sullivan last December, the Penguins closed the season on a 33-16-5 note. The team led the league in goals per game under Sullivan, scoring an average of 3.24 whenever they took the ice. Playoff opponents shaved that figure just a bit to 3.22 during the post season — second behind, you guessed it, the San Jose Sharks.

The Penguins’ road back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since winning the trophy in 2009 has been littered with obstacles. Crosby, the two-time league MVP, faced career-threatening concussion injuries for stretches of 2010-2012, and his long-time teammate Evgeni Malkin missed significant time as well. Pittsburgh’s last two trips to the playoffs were severed in the second and first rounds by the New York Rangers.

Sidney Crosby told USA Today:

“Any team that gets to this point has a lot of confidence and a lot of belief in one another. They feel like they have been tested and gotten through that. Those things bring you together as a group.”

Crosby and Malkin center two of the Penguin’s offensive lines, with blockbuster summer acquisition Phil Kessel anchoring the third. There’s no soft spots in the Pittsburgh attack when you throw in the ageless Matt Cullen’s line; all three of their groupings feature proven scorers.

Defense is another story. Kris Letang is one of the best defenseman in the league, but the talent level slides off a glacier after him. The loss of Trevor Daley to an ankle fracture a few weeks ago doesn’t exactly help the Penguins’ depth problem.

Despite what often threatens to be a mess in front of him however, 22-year-old goaltender Matt Murray has exceeded expectations in his first post season. His .924 playoff save percentage has finally earned him the unquestioned starting nod heading into the final round.

Matt Murray told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“I don’t think I really needed peace of mind (of being the solidified starter). That’s not part of my job. My job is to be ready. I’m a pretty easygoing guy. I try not to over think things too much.”

If the Penguins showed anything in their blur of a series against last year’s runner-up in the Tampa Bay Lightning, it’s that they are very, very fast. The matchup visibly outpaced the methodical Sharks-Blues games and left Pittsburgh arguably better acclimated for what will be a speed-based Final.

Sharks center Logan Couture said:

“They’ve got a lot of skill up front. They’re going to be a tough team to beat. They’ve got a lot of speed. I think it will be an interesting first period to see how they’re going to play for sure.”

Their second-round battle against the regular season’s best team in the Washington Capitals proved they can go toe to toe with a fellow offensive juggernaut.

The series opens Monday night at 5 p.m. at Consol Energy in Pittsburgh, where 26 home wins helped Penguins earn home ice advantage in the Stanley Cup Final. The Sharks hardly lay down on the road, though, batting to an NHL-leading 28 wins on the road in 2015-16 — while failing to reach .500 at SAP Center.