And then there were two. The field has winnowed its way down from 16 participants to just the two finalists, and each brings with them a story of redemption and resiliency. The Penguins under Mike Johnston were spiraling downwards, first last season as they qualified for the final seed in the playoffs on the last day, but further this year as they were a mediocre team playing less than mediocre hockey. The firing of Johnston and the hiring of Mike Sullivan abruptly changed the course of their season, and it's one that has resulted in at least an Eastern Conference Championship.
The Sharks got a head start on the Penguins in the coaching search, hiring new coach Peter DeBoer during the 2015 offseason after firing longtime coach Todd McLellan. They also got a head start on the spiral downwards last year too as they missed the postseason after 10 consecutive appearances. Like Pittsburgh since the Cup win in 2009, they've been a talented team that hasn't been able to break through, but they've exorcised the demons from their most recent playoff series prior to this year, a 7 game loss to the Kings after leading the series 3-0, and the Sharks are the closest to the Stanley Cup that they've ever been in the 25 year history of their franchise.
Pittsburgh and San Jose were two of the better possession teams during the 2015-16 regular season, finishing 2nd (53.0%) and 8th (52.1%), respectively. They've both followed a similar pattern to the season as well, as they started off relatively weak, gained strength down the stretch run of the regular season, and have seen their 25 game average dip in the postseason. It should be noted, however, that both teams had a strong series possession-wise in their conference finals, with the Penguins notching a 55.6 SACF% against the Lightning and the Sharks recording a 54.0 SACF% against the Blues. If there's one thing the Pens have done in the playoffs that they weren't doing in the regular season, it's going into a defensive shell to close out games, and they'll need to keep the pedal to the metal to prevent a strong San Jose team from having the types of opportunities to come back that were afforded to Tampa Bay.
The Pittsburgh offense was dead in the water under former coach Mike Johnston, but it's been a different story under Mike Sullivan as they've steadily improved their 25 game average with him behind the bench. In fact, the Pens managed to go from having a +0 goal differential under Johnston to finishing 2nd in the league over the course of the entire season with a +42. The Sharks also struggled during the first part of the season, having a +5 goal differential and the halfway point, but like the Pens they too surged down the stretch and finished with a +31. Over the course of these playoffs, San Jose has a leg up in both categories, having more goals per game (3.50 vs 3.22) and allowing fewer per game (2.28 vs 2.39).
It takes talent to win the Stanley Cup, but it also takes a decent amount of luck as well. Perhaps the luck part of the Eastern Conference Finals for the Penguins was that they were able to win it despite being so unlucky. Andrei Vasilevskiy stood on his head for much of the ECF, and the Tampa Bay offense was able to convert their chances at a much higher rate than Pittsburgh. When the dust settled, the Pens had put up a 97.8 PDO in the series yet still won the 4 games to move onto the Finals. That leaves them with a 101.2 PDO over the first three rounds while the Sharks are still sky high at 104.1.
Both teams have been flirting with a shooting percentage in double digits, but the Sharks have been particularly hot in the playoffs with a 12.5 SH% in all situations. Their ability to put goals up on the board and drive play during the postseason has been key to insulating Martin Jones. While Jones isn't a bad goalie, he'll easily be the least challenging goalie the Pens have seen up to this point, and his 0.919 SV% does speak to a goalie who has been stealing series for his team. If Matt Murray can show that the start of the Tampa Bay series was a fluke, and his final two games and first two series are what to expect from him in net, then Pittsburgh will have an advantage between the pipes, and the ability of the teams to control the possession game will play a huge role in determining the eventual Cup Champs.
Season Series Results
November 21, 2015: SJ 3 - PIT 1
December 1, 2015: PIT 5 - SJ 1
Neither of the two games between the teams took place with Mike Sullivan behind the Pittsburgh bench, nor did they occur when the Sharks began to put the pieces together over the back stretch of the season. Brent Burns had a pair of goals in the San Jose win, while Phil Kessel totaled 3 goals over the two games.