PITTSBURGH -- Here we go. This is it. The first to four wins will hoist the Stanley Cup as champions of the 2015-16 NHL season. It comes down to either the Eastern Conference-winning Pittsburgh Penguins or the Western Conference-winning San Jose Sharks. At this time of the season, it’s difficult to pick a few players from each team who are “hot” or those who are “not,” since both teams reached this point because of contributions from everyone on the roster in some shape or form. Without further ado, here is our Stanley Cup edition.
Bryan Rust: The rookie forward began the season with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL. He finished the Eastern Conference finals with two goals in Pittsburgh’s decisive 2-1 win in Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was his second career multigoal game in the postseason, both of which came in series-clinching wins. (He also had two goals and one assist in Game 5 against the New York Rangers.) Rust has five goals and three assists for eight points in 17 postseason games this season.
Phil Kessel: Who would have thought Kessel would become a folk hero? After stints with the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, the trade that sent him to Pittsburgh, a place where he didn’t have to be the guy, turned out to prove crucial for the Penguins and for Kessel. He learned to live and play outside the shadows of superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Kessel’s “HBK” line with Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino is a major reason the Penguins are in the Stanley Cup finals. The trio is producing at both ends of the ice, and so far in the postseason, Kessel has a team-leading nine goals and nine assists for 18 points in 18 games.
Evgeni Malkin: At times, Malkin showed he could be a beast, but he hasn't been consistent. He did have two assists in Game 7 of the conference finals to extend his points streak to five games, but he needs to do more. He has four goals and 11 assists for 15 points in 17 playoff games, but he hasn't been the force the Penguins need him to be in order to accomplish the next goal. He has that next gear and now needs to bring it every game.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
Joe Pavelski: He was a monster at the most opportune time for the Sharks in the conference finals, with four goals and five assists for nine points. His 13 goals this postseason lead the league. He enters the Stanley Cup finals with a seven-game points streak -- five goals and five assists.
Logan Couture: He scored one goal and added an assist in Game 6 of the conference finals to lead the Sharks to a 5-2 win and a berth in the Stanley Cup finals. It was his third three-point game of the playoffs, all of which came in series-clinching wins. He leads all players in points this postseason with eight goals and 16 assists for 24 points.
Joe Thornton: He has been playing inspired hockey for the majority of the season, and that has carried over into the playoffs. His teammates are feeding off his energy and Jumbo Joe is the closest he has ever come in his career to winning a Stanley Cup. Could this be the season he finally accomplishes that feat? Many believe it will happen for Thornton and the Sharks. He enters the finals with seven points in his past four games.
Nick Spaling: The teams that have won the Cup in recent history -- Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings and Boston Bruins -- all had something in common: The ability to roll four lines. The Penguins have it. The Sharks are a deep team, too. With that said, Spaling needs to chip in a dirty goal on occasion. His ice time is limited, averaging 13 minutes per game this postseason, but he has been held to one assist in 18 games. He’s not known as a prolific point-getter, but at this time of the year, everyone needs to add a little something more.