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Sharks the upset pick to win first Stanley Cup

San Jose Sharks' Brent Burns (88), and Patrick Marleau, right, participate in a hockey practice at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Sunday May 29, 2016. The Sharks are preparing for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday, May 30, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
May 30, 2016 - 7:24 AM

The San Jose Sharks are best known in their brief history for falling short, but in their first ever Stanley Cup Final appearance they might just have enough to vanquish the past.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. San Jose Sharks

Pick: Sharks in six.

Why: The Sharks thumped the favoured Kings in the first round, outlasted the Predators in the second round and then thoroughly outplayed the Blues in the Western Conference final. It was a roundly impressive showing for a team with so much past playoff disappointment.

The Sharks enter the final though as the underdog.

Pittsburgh just outlasted the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference final, boasting impressive depth beyond Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Not only have the Penguins been led the entire post-season by the line of Phil Kessel (18 points), Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin, but the club has also seen contributions offensively from 39-year-old Matt Cullen (four goals), Chris Kunitz (four goals), Bryan Rust (five goals) as well as rookies Tom Kuhnhackl and Conor Sheary.

That depth would pose problems for any defence. Crosby and Malkin rightly draw the top defensive options, which leaves others to combat Kessel, Bonino and Hagelin.

The Sharks top pair of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun was terrific in slowing the Blues Vladimir Tarasenko in the last round though and could pose similar issues for Crosby and company. Vlasic and the Penguins captain have been combating one another since both played in the Quebec Major Junior League, the Sharks defender a quietly effective force capable of taming Pittsburgh's captain.

Beyond Vlasic and Braun is the more-than-capable pair of Brent Burns and Paul Martin, the former a weapon himself offensively that the Penguins have to be mindful of.

Maybe the better question isn't whether the Sharks can contain the Penguins' depth, but whether the Penguins diminished defence can slow a Sharks attack that overwhelmed a vaunted Blues defence.

Can the Penguins, without injured defenceman Trevor Daley, stop San Jose's top trio of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl? That line proved destructive throughout the second half of the regular season and post-season so far. Thornton is a wizard with the puck while Pavelski uses his smarts and drive to find open spaces to score (playoff-leading 13 goals).

Beyond that top unit is a solid second line that features Logan Couture, who leads the playoffs with 24 points, along with 24-year-old Finnish revelation Joonas Donskoi. Deeper still in the Sharks lineup is annual playoff hero Joel Ward, who has six goals already this spring.

A Penguins defence anchored by Kris Letang, averaging 29 minutes in the playoffs, will have to lean more on Ben Lovejoy as well as the mostly untested likes of Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, and Justin Schultz, the latter two healthy scratches at various points this spring.

Then there's the matter of power plays. Both teams boast terrific units, the Sharks leading the playoffs with 17 power-play goals, the Penguins tied for second with 15 goals of their own. Both units have plenty of weapons, including Pavelski and Kessel, who have five goals each on the power play this spring.

Pittsburgh's penalty kill was elite in the regular season and sturdy once more against the Lightning, shutting down 10 of 11 attempts over the final six games of the series. That was against a below-grade power-play though, not one as lethal as the Sharks.

The Penguins also won't have Daley, one of their more trusted penalty killers who's sidelined with a broken ankle.

San Jose had an NHL-leading 62 power-play goals during the regular season. From Thornton to Pavelski to Burns to Patrick Marleau to Couture, the Sharks have plenty of talent that will be difficult for the Penguins to contain.

Both the Sharks and Penguins will turn to goaltenders getting their first taste of the big stage. Martin Jones and Matt Murray have both have had their ups and downs in the post-season, neither one with any real edge entering Game 1 on Monday evening.

One grabbing hold of the spotlight could change that equation.

It's the Sharks solid top-four on defence, fearsome top line and devastating power play though which makes them CP's pick.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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