“It’s a pretty cool feeling,” Sharks forward Joe Thornton said after beating the St. Louis Blues in the conference finals. “The fans here have waited so long, 25 years. We’ve waited 18 years or so. So it’s a great feeling.”
San Jose is a more complete team than any of those playoff squads we have seen in years past. Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Conn Smythe hopeful Joe Pavelski now mesh with relative newcomers Logan Couture and Brent Burns to produce one of the most potent offenses in the NHL.
During the regular season, forwards Thornton (82 points) and Pavelski (78) were among the top 10 in the NHL in scoring and Burns, a defenseman, ranked 11th (75). Burns’s 27 goals this year were the most by a defenseman since 2008-09 (Washington’s Mike Green), and his 125 individual scoring chances at even strength were 20 more than two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson.
“Everyone’s played their part and has been a key contributor to our success,” Pavelski said. “It kind of builds. Everyone feeds off each other.”
Nowhere is this more evident than on the San Jose power play. The Sharks ranked third in efficiency during the regular season (22.6 percent) and bumped that to 27 percent in the playoffs. Their top unit — which usually includes Burns, Thornton, Pavelski, Marleau and Couture — is dangerous because it has five guys who are a threat to score at any time, like when Thornton set up Pavelski in the slot on the power play in Game 5.
It’s also dangerous because of the volume of shots those players get on net. Among teams who advanced at least past the first round of the playoffs, the Sharks are generating the third-most scoring chances per two minutes (2.1), with almost half of those of the dangerous variety. Dangerous shots are classified as those originating in the slot or near the crease, with Joel Ward’s deflection in Game 5 one of the most difficult for any goaltender to stop when the other team has a man advantage.
The key for the Penguins’ penalty killers will be to keep San Jose from having extended zone time, something they have done well this season, especially against the Washington Capitals, who have one of the league’s best power-play units.
Against Washington, Pittsburgh made sure to contest every pass, forcing the Capitals into less-than-ideal shots from way past the top of the faceoff circles. The Penguins also challenged Washington when it tried to carry the puck into the offensive zone, often clearing the puck or forcing turnovers.
If the penalty killers can’t reduce the number of high-danger chances the Sharks are prone to generate, it could be bad news for the Penguins’ rookie netminder, Matt Murray. The 22-year-old has been solid this postseason, stopping 404 of his 437 shots faced as well as providing the team with above-average performance in 10 of his 15 starts. But Murray has struggled with high-danger chances on the penalty kill, allowing five of the 19 chances he has faced to light the lamp in the playoffs.
“The biggest challenge is ahead of us,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “We have to finish it off the right way.”