Pittsburgh Penguins (second seed, Metropolitan Division) vs. San Jose Sharks (third seed, Pacific Division)
Here's a look at the Stanley Cup finals showdown between the Sharks and Penguins:
How they win
Penguins: Speed and more speed. The Sharks are a fast team, but the Eastern Conference finals kicked into another gear compared with the West -- and that could spell trouble for San Jose. Pittsburgh has built its identity under first-year coach Mike Sullivan around speed, and that pace will be a weapon for them against the tight-checking, structured Sharks.
Pittsburgh also has a depth it hasn't had in years. Even if the Sharks contain stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, as Pittsburgh's other opponents have done at times this postseason, Phil Kessel's line can absolutely fly and presents a major challenge of its own. San Jose's shutdown pair of defensemen, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, has done a great job of limiting stars in previous series. So the challenge for Sharks coach Peter DeBoer will be picking which star to try to nullify this time.
Sharks: If their top line dominates, they win. Against the defensively focused St. Louis Blues, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl were up against their biggest challenge -- and they passed with flying colors. Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and his teammates had held some of the biggest stars in the game -- such as Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Jamie Benn -- in check but they didn't have an answer for the Sharks' top line.
Pavelski has been a man on a mission this postseason, with a playoff-best 13 goals, and Thornton set up a good portion of them. If Pavelski can light up the Blues, he can light up the Penguins.
The Sharks will win this series if their power play continues to perform at that rate it has so far. San Jose is at 27 percent on the power play, and opponents just haven't had an answer when Thornton gets set up on the halfboards and starts feeding passes to Pavelski in the slot or to defenseman Brent Burns at the point for his big shot.
How they lose
Penguins: To their credit, the Penguins survived the East finals and advanced without defenseman Trevor Daley, who is finished for the season after breaking his ankle in Game 4 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. But there's a big difference between getting through three games and surviving a potential seven-game series against the Western Conference champs.
The loss of Daley is a big one for the Penguins, who will lose the series if the Sharks can expose a blue line that isn't as strong or deep as that of the two previous teams San Jose defeated, the Nashville Predators and the Blues. The high-powered Sharks have averaged 3.5 goals per game in the playoffs, and that's been against Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin, Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Kevin Shattenkirk and Pietrangelo. Kris Letang is in that same echelon, but the drop-off after him is more severe than it was with the Western defensive powers.
Sharks: They will lose if they don't find an answer for the Penguins' depth and star power up front.
As good as the Blues are, they didn't have a No. 1 center to go toe-to-toe with Thornton and Pavelski. The Penguins have two of them. If Crosby and Malkin get going offensively, that will mean trouble for the Sharks. Even if they spend a majority of their shifts in the offensive zone and keep Thornton and Pavelski on the wrong side of the ice, that's a big plus for Pittsburgh.
DeBoer will likely roll his eyes at this notion because many people mentioned it last round too, but San Jose's third line -- anchored by Chris Tierney -- just doesn't match up well with the third line of the Penguins. If the Penguins can expose that edge in a way the Blues didn't, they will win the series.
1.5 goals against per 60 minutes
The Sharks' high-octane power play has overshadowed just how good they've been at even strength defensively this postseason.
San Jose is allowing just 1.5 even-strength goals against per 60 minutes of play, compared with 2.2 for the Penguins, according to war-on-ice.com. Another way to put that is the Sharks have scored a playoff-best 62.3 percent of the even-strength goals during their three series. The Penguins are at 54.9 percent. After his team was eliminated, Blues forward Troy Brouwer articulated well what makes the Sharks so tough defensively.
"They're really committed to their tracking -- 'two over the top' [is] what we call it," Brouwer said. "They had four guys back; they took away our rush game. In the D zone, they took away a lot of our time and space. We were having trouble trying to create opportunities and our shot totals weren't high enough because they did a great job in the D zone."
Penguins: After getting shut out by the Washington Capitals in the second round, Crosby responded with three goals in seven games against the Lightning, including the first overtime winner of his playoff career. During Crosby's last trip to the Stanley Cup finals, the Detroit Red Wings limited him to one goal. But now we're talking about a player who has 133 points in 118 career playoff games and, at 28, realizes just how hard it is to return to this stage. The expectation here is that he seizes the moment.
Sharks: First, let's acknowledge that Pavelski is the Conn Smythe leader. He has been amazing and has scored in different ways, from deflecting shots in front of the goalie to using his relentless tenacity to drive pucks home. But Thornton is the engine that drives the Sharks' top line and power play. He has waited his entire career for this moment, and it's a chance to remind the world he's a future Hall of Famer and one of the best passers ever to play the game.
"It's amazing how good he is at feathering it through skates and under sticks," teammate Logan Couture said.
The only concern with Thornton is his foot speed against a Penguins team that can fly, but he has a way of slowing the game down to a speed that suits him. It will be fun to watch him and Crosby go head-to-head with a Stanley Cup in the balance.
For the first time in years, it doesn't seem like a foregone conclusion that the Western Conference is going to win the Stanley Cup. These finals have the potential to be a classic and extend to seven games for the first time since the Boston Bruins beat the Vancouver Canucks in 2011. It should be a tight, close matchup -- but it's hard to pick against the better-checking team. Sharks in 7.