Pittsburgh fans knew the Penguins' opponent in their most recent Stanley Cup finals appearances -- the Detroit Red Wings -- fairly well. But I'm not sure many Penguins fans stay up for 10:30 p.m. ET starts to watch San Jose Sharks home games during the regular season.
So, for anyone who needs to get up to speed on the Western Conference champions, here are five things you might not know about the Sharks:
1. Third-line center Chris Tierney is no slouch
When the West finals began, a popular narrative -- not just among the media (including myself) but rival scouts -- was that the St. Louis Blues' top-nine depth would pose a matchup problem for San Jose's third line. But Tierney, a 21-year-old rookie, was at his best against the Blues, holding his own defensively and chipping in two goals and an assist during the final three games. Nobody outside of San Jose knows much about Tierney -- who scored 40 goals during his last season of junior hockey in London, Ontario -- but he has good hands and is really coming on for the Sharks. People will see a matchup edge for Pittsburgh here where there isn't one.
2. They've been on fire since January
We've heard a lot about the Penguins being unconscious since midseason.
Well, they're not alone.
On the morning of Jan. 9, the Sharks were a mediocre 18-18-2. They routed the Toronto Maple Leafs 7-0 that night to start a stretch in which they've gone a ridiculous 40-18-4 (including the playoffs). Center Joe Thornton thinks the Sharks began to figure things out it December, once they got on the same page with first-year coach Peter DeBoer.
"With the new coaching staff, we needed to realize how we needed to play to win," Thornton said Wednesday night after the series-clinching Game 6 win over the Blues. "That probably clicked in early December. After that, we just exploded. I think that's really when we saw the depth of this team.
"Everybody plays a big part. Pete has really stressed it's going to take everybody to get us where we need to go. I think we've all bought into that. We all come to the rink prepared, ready to work, then have some fun after. I'd say it was probably sometime in December when we got it all figured out.''
The point being, San Jose hasn't simply caught lightning in a bottle during the playoffs. The Sharks are no Cinderella, underdog team. They have been playing Cup-contending hockey for five months now.
3. They're not just a power-play team
At the very least, most Penguins fans have probably noticed how lethal and dynamic San Jose's power play has been this postseason. Colleague Craig Custance pointed this out Thursday: According to war-on-ice.com, no team in the postseason has had more even-strength scoring chances than San Jose, with the Sharks at the top of the list with a scoring-chance plus/minus of plus-54. (The Penguins are at plus-22.) That speaks to San Jose's four-line depth. It's not just Thornton's top line doing all the damage.
4. Logan Couture is better than ever
Sharks captain Joe Pavelski is the leading Conn Smythe Trophy candidate, with 13 goals -- so many of them clutch -- but Couture actually leads San Jose in points, with 24 in 18 playoffs games. After breaking out with a team-high 11 points in the second-round series against the Nashville Predators, Couture kept going in the West finals, where the second-line center had seven points in six games. For my money, Couture is playing his best hockey in years. He's yet another threat for the Penguins to worry about.
5. They have another other Norris-caliber defenseman besides Chewbacca
We're guessing Penguins fans know all about the electric Brent Burns, who was nominated for the Norris Trophy this season and is having a standout postseason. But the Sharks have another outstanding defenseman who doesn't get nearly enough credit.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic is among the best blueliners in the NHL, a shutdown guy who's smart with the puck and adept with his stick. He's a big reason Tyler Toffoli of the Los Angeles Kings, Filip Forsberg of the Predators and Vladimir Tarasenko of the Blues were negated in their respective series against San Jose.
"I think the fact he's one of the first four defensemen named to Team Canada [for the World Cup] should scream to everybody how good this guy is," DeBoer said during the West finals. "But for some reason, it doesn't. You really have to watch him to appreciate how good, night in and night out, he is.
"He can go through a whole game without making a mistake. We rewatch the video after every game and it's amazing how many nights I'll walk out after a second viewing and realize that the guy touched the puck 50 times and didn't make a mistake. That's so rare."