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Going into this series it’s important not to focus too far into the past. This will be the first time in the Sharks 25 year history to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but that is because the team that has been assembled this past season is a significantly stronger and more confident one than they have had in the past. The Penguins struggled at the beginning of the regular season, but 28 games in Mike Sullivan took over coaching duties and worked to amplify the team’s assets and push a fast pace breathing new life into the Pittsburgh team.

Penguins: Pittsburgh was 15-10-3 when general manager Jim Rutherford decided to replace Mike Johnston with Mike Sullivan as coach, and it was the game changer the Penguins needed. Under Johnston the greatest assets of the team were stifled, but with the entrance of Sullivan Pittsburgh was given the freedom to use all the weapons in their arsenal to play a faster more productive game. He has added a calmness on the bench and brought the team together. He pushes the players to embrace their individual skills while playing as a team and pushed a more aggressive and faster pace.

The Penguins have a stacked offensive unit. Crosby scored 36 goals and had 85 points during the regular season, and he and Malkin each have 15 points in the playoffs. Malkin went six games earlier this postseason without a point, but with a five-game point streak (one goal and five assists) he seems to be hitting his stride. It is often forgotten that Crosby and Malkin are not the only offensive weapons that Pittsburgh has in their arsenal.

There was talk that Phil Kessel is the most overrated player in the league, but his play has certainly disputed that as the team has greatly benefited from his acquisition from the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer. Kessel has shown his worth leading Pittsburgh this postseason in scoring with 18 points (nine goals and nine assists) in as many games. The line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel has been dynamite for the Penguins. Bonino has 12 assists in 18 games, and Hagelin has five goals and seven assists, and is one of the fastest skaters in the league.

Conor Sheary has two goals in 17 games, and Patrick Hornqvist has seven goals and four assists. The two have shared much of their time on the ice on a line with Sidney Crosby.

This is Bryan Rust’s first playoffs, but he isn’t showing it as he is playing with the confidence of a more experienced player. He scored each of Pittsburgh’s goals in a 2-1 win in Game 7 against the Lightning. We will likely see Rust alongside Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz. Kunitz has racked up 10 points in 18 games.

Veterans Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr reside on the Penguins fourth line with rookie Tom Kuhnhackl. Cullen has scored is crucial moments and is solid on both ends of the ice.

The Penguins defense has been the thorn in this lion’s paw. Opponents have recognized its weakness battering on its strongest player, Kris Letang, in efforts to neutralize him and leaving the rest of the defensive unit to self-destruct.

Letang is one of the top offensive defensemen in the NHL. He is averaging 28:46 of ice time in the playoffs, and has two goals and eight assists in 17 games. But he only had two points in the Eastern Conference Final. It will be crucial that he step up his game in the Final. Brian Dumoulin is Letang’s primary defensive partner. He plays more than 20 minutes per game and is a solid defensive player and a strong skater.

Olli Maatta has he played 19:34 and was plus-2 in Game 7 against Tampa Bay, but has been inconsistent. Maatta will more than likely be paired with Ben Lovejoy who has played more than 20 minutes in each of the past three games.

Justin Schultz played 12:50 in Game 7 against Tampa Bay, and Ian Cole played less than 11 minutes. If the pair gets enough ice time Schultz will have the opportunity to provide the team with extra offense.

Trevor Daley is currently out with a lower-body injury, but could provide a boon to the defensive unit when he returns.

During the regular season the Penguins power play was nothing to brag about, but in the playoffs their power play is converting at 23.4 percent while their penalty kill has a success rate of 83.6 percent in the playoffs, fifth in the NHL.

Matt Murray is 11-4 in the playoffs with a 2.21 GAA and .924 save percentage, and if the Penguins win the Cup he is most likely to be awarded the Conn Smyth Trophy. Murray is a rookie, but Sullivan has faith in him from his time with him at Wilkes-Barr/Scranton. Coaches and teammates alike have commented on the 22 year old’s maturity and calmness throughout the playoffs as being that of a more experience goaltender.

If Murray has difficulties in the Final the Penguins will have the more than able and experienced Marc-Andre Fleury to take over in goal.

Sharks: Patrick Marleau has played 1,411 regular-season games with the Sharks and another 165 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Marleau has 12 points in the playoffs, but has gone six straight games without a goal, and it will be crucial that he find the back of the net in this series. Joe Thornton arrived in 2005 in a trade with the Boston Bruins. Thornton is second in the NHL in assists this postseason with 15. The two veteran forwards will be leaned on heavily for their experience throughout this series.

First year captain, Joe Pavelski, has 13 goals in 18 games this postseason, including four game-winners. He is one of the primary reasons this team has come this far in big part to his leadership on and off the ice. Tomas Hertl has five goals and five assists this postseason, and adds extra size the line with Thornton and Pavelski.

Center Logan Couture is first in the NHL in assists this postseason with 16. He is a creative player and can produce anywhere in the offensive zone, and he contributes greatly on the power play.

San Jose’s second line is made up of Marleau, Couture and Joonas Donskoi, and is a force to be reckoned with. Donskoi had 11 goals in 76 regular-season games, has five goals in the playoffs.

Joel Ward has 11 points in 18 playoff games. He has a familiarity with the Penguins from his days facing them on the Capitals. Centering Ward’s line is Chris Tierney, who had seven goals in 79 regular-season games and has five in the playoffs. On the left wing of this line is Melker Karlsson who plays well at both ends of the ice.

Dainius Zubrus hasn’t produced as much offense as he has in the past, but has contributed on the fourth line alongside Nick Spaling and Tommy Wingels, who leads the Sharks with 58 hits this postseason.

Sharks defenseman Brent Burns is a Norris Trophy contender. Burns had 75 points (27 goals and 48 assists) in the regular season. In post season he is San Jose’s third leading scorer with 20 points (six goals and 14 assists) and is averaging more than 25 minutes of ice time. Burns has great chemistry with his defensive partner, Paul Martin, who is very familiar with Pittsburgh’s team as he played five seasons on the team.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic has been phenomenal this postseason. Vlasic has the ability to shut down scoring from the top offensive players in the league. He is paired with Justin Braun, who was plus-3 in Game 5 against St. Louis, and played 22:23.

Roman Polak and Brenden Dillon make up the Sharks’ third pair. They add grit and roughness that will plague the Penguins throughout the series.

San Jose’s power play was third in the League at 22.5 percent in the regular season, and now is ranked second in the postseason at 27.0 percent. Their penalty kill has a success rate of 80.4 percent this postseason, seventh in the NHL.

Martin Jones won 37 games during the regular season and going 12-6 with a 2.12 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in the playoffs. The team trusts him in the net, and he often sets the tone for the team. Jones will be backed up by James Reimer, who has played 29 minutes in the postseason, all during a 6-3 loss to St. Louis in Game 4 of the conference final.

Prediction: Penguins in 7

Key Matchup-

The Penguins have a revitalized Sidney Crosby backed up by the whole Penguins team who seem to have been given new life after Mike Johnston was replaced with Mike Sullivan on the bench. Crosby’s offensive play is back up with the best in the league; while the rough start to the Penguins season has had his defensive shot rates down. The Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi will not be likely to be around at the beginning of the series so the New York team will need to lean on top line center Derek Stepan to keep Crosby in check. Stepan held a similar shot rate percentage to the Pens’ captain and is underrated as a player, but has an opportunity to show his worth and give New York an opportunity at the second round.

Pittsburgh Penguins-

Winning Formula: 

The change of head coach from Mike Johnston to Mike Sullivan mid-season has been a literal game changer for the Penguins team. Since the change was made the Pens have been using their speed to tire out other teams early in the game, the defensive unit has become more adept at moving the puck, and Sidney Crosby looks like a different player since the coaching switch; producing far more than he did earlier in the season on under Johnston. The Pittsburgh team is one of the best possession squads in the Eastern Conference, and when they have the puck they have the ability to put it in the back of the net. Phil Kessel and when healthy Evgeni Malkin can be expected to put up numbers. Kris Letang may also be a key player in this series adding assists, goals, and a defensive edge. It is unclear whether Marc-Andre Fleury will be healthy and in the net at the beginning of the series; if he is he has the experience and ability to stop shots, but if he isn’t the other Penguins goal tending options aren’t to be overlooked. The alternative goaltenders may have less experience, but the skill and talent is aplenty.

How to Lose the Series in 7 Games or Less:  The Penguins have a so much going for them entering this series, but since their 2009 Stanley Cup win they have fallen again and again to rivals and underdogs alike. They have won four total playoff series over the last six years since winning their last Stanley Cup, but have lost seven of their last eight postseason games against the Rangers and were ousted by them each of the last two years.  If we look at what is wrong with the current Pittsburgh team we will find a shockingly unproductive power play despite Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang’s efforts. Speaking of Malkin; he is currently out with an upper body injury. The Penguins have been winning games without him, but until his return Crosby will have an even bigger target on his back and the team will be missing an essential component to their attack.

NY Rangers-

Winning Formula:  The Rangers have the best shooting percentage in the NHL over this last season and the season before. J.T. Miller, Mats Zuccarello, and Derick Brassard have been productive no matter what line they’ve been on. The addition of Eric Staal will add some desperately needed possession game to the Rangers as he averages a point per game in the playoffs vs. .85 in the regular season. Chris Kreider, and Rick Nash will also find ways to make things difficult on the Pens. Henrik Lundqvist is a playoff goaltender. He stays calm, stops pucks, and will stand on his head for his team if needed.

How to Lose the Series in 7 Games or Less: The Rangers rank in the bottom 10 on possession, and all other Eastern playoff teams rank high above them in that aspect. When the Rangers went to the 2014 final, they were top 10. They can’t score if they don’t have the puck; it’s as simple as that.

Prediction: Penguins in 7

Follow us on Twitter @TristinHuntamer and @BandBHockey

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Head-to-Head Season Stats
Stats
Rangers
Penguins
Record 3-0-1 1-2-1
Goals 16 7
Shot Attempts 148 186

 

Season Stats
 
Rangers
Penguins
Rank
Stats
Rank
Stats
Shot Attempts For/60 12 54.5 8 55.4
Shot Attempts Against/60 19 53.6 5 48.6
Shot Attempt % 18 50.6 7 53.3
Goals For/60 3 2.68 15 2.26
Goals Against/60 11 2.05 8 2.03
Goal % 3 56.7 10 52.7
Shooting % 3 8.8 18 7.5
Save % 5 93.1 13 92.5
Powerplay 21 16.8 10 19.3
Penalty Kill 6 84.3 3 84.8

Key Matchup-

Sidney Crosby vs. Rick Nash: Both players received heavy criticism for their play in last year’s playoffs. Nash had one of his best regular seasons while Crosby had one of his worst, but don’t let that fool you as they are still very evenly matched. Both had a major impact on their respective teams to get them to the playoffs.

Pittsburgh Penguins-

Winning Formula: The Penguins are top-10 in goals against, power play, penalty kill and 5-on-5 scoring. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin remain two of the NHL’s elite players, and Crosby has gotten better in the second half of the season. Kris Letang has had a phenomenal comeback season. Marc-Andre Fleury was tied for the NHL lead in shutouts, has been solid in the goal, and performed well in last year’s post season where it was offense that held the team back and not goaltending. First-year coach Mike Johnston pushes for a fast paced style, stronger defensive presence, and a focus on possession. Pittsburgh is a team that has everything they need to win, but execution of all those factors is key to them progressing.

How to Lose the Series in 7 Games or Less:  Despite having two of the best players in the world and so much else going for them, Pittsburgh hasn’t reached the final since that win in ’09 and has fallen or struggled against teams inferior on paper. This team has had issues with losing their composure and imploding, but don’t just put the blame on Fleury as last year he was their saving grace keeping the Pens in the playoffs as long as he could. They will need to be mentally tougher to utilize all their skills and talents.

NY Rangers-

Winning Formula: The Rangers have one of the best blueline corps in the NHL. Keith Yandle, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi all play solid games. Cam Talbot was excellent in Henrik Lundqvist’s absence, but The King remains the Rangers’ starter. Lundqvist relies on his reflexes and instincts playing deep in the net, but he’s as good as anyone reading the rush and reading plays. They have a strong penalty kill. Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello, Martin St-Louis, Chris Kreider and Carl Hagelin are all players to watch.

How to Lose the Series in 7 Games or Less:  With all their talent and skill this team is only middle of the pack when it comes to possession keeping that amazing defense very busy. When Nash wasn’t producing during last year’s post season the fans were quick to turn on him and that can wreak havoc on a player’s confidence. Lundqvist is recovering from vascular injury after a puck struck his throat Jan. 31. He missed almost two months of games in the second half of the season.

Follow me @TristinHuntamer

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EASTERN CONFERENCE FIRST-ROUND MATCHUPS
SERIES A – A1 vs. W1 TIME (ET) Ottawa-Montreal NETWORKS
Wednesday, April 15 7 p.m. Ottawa at Montreal CBC, TVA Sports, NHL Network
Friday, April 17  7 p.m. Ottawa at Montreal CBC, TVA Sports, CNBC
Sunday, April 19 7 p.m. Montreal at Ottawa CBC, TVA Sports, NBCSN
Wednesday, April 22 7 p.m. Montreal at Ottawa CBC, TVA Sports, USA
*Friday, April 24  TBD Ottawa at Montreal CBC
*Sunday, April 26  TBD Montreal at Ottawa CBC
*Tuesday, April 28  TBD Ottawa at Montreal CBC
SERIES B – A2 vs. A3 TIME (ET) Detroit-Tampa Bay NETWORKS
Thursday, April 16 7:30 p.m. Detroit at Tampa Bay CNBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 18 3 p.m. Detroit at Tampa Bay NBC, CBC, TVA Sports
Tuesday, April 21 7 p.m. Tampa Bay at Detroit NBCSN, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Thursday, April 23 7 p.m. Tampa Bay at Detroit NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
*Saturday, April 25 TBD Detroit at Tampa Bay TBD
*Monday, April 27 TBD Tampa Bay at Detroit TBD
*Wednesday, April 29 TBD Detroit at Tampa Bay TBD
SERIES C – M1 vs. W2 TIME (ET) Pittsburgh-NY Rangers NETWORKS
Thursday, April 16 7 p.m. Pittsburgh at NY Rangers NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 18 8 p.m. Pittsburgh at NY Rangers NBC, CBC, TVA Sports
Monday, April 20 7 p.m. NY Rangers at Pittsburgh NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
Wednesday, April 22 7 p.m. NY Rangers at Pittsburgh NBCSN, SN 360, TVA Sports
*Friday, April 24 TBD Pittsburgh at NY Rangers TBD
*Sunday, April 26 TBD NY Rangers at Pittsburgh TBD
*Tuesday, April 28 TBD Pittsburgh at NY Rangers TBD
SERIES D – M2 vs. M3 TIME (ET) NY Islanders- Washington NETWORKS
Wednesday, April 15 7 p.m. NY Islanders at Washington USA, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Friday, April 17 7 p.m. NY Islanders at Washington NBCSN, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Sunday, April 19 Noon Washington at NY Islanders NBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Tuesday, April 21 7:30 p.m. Washington at NY Islanders USA, SN 360, TVA Sports
*Thursday, April 23 TBD NY Islanders at Washington TBD
*Saturday, April 25 TBD Washington at NY Islanders TBD
*Monday, April 27 TBD NY Islanders at Washington TBD
WESTERN CONFERENCE FIRST-ROUND MATCHUPS
SERIES E – C1 vs. W1 TIME (ET) Minnesota-St. Louis NETWORKS
Thursday, April 16 9:30 p.m. Minnesota at St. Louis NBCSN, SN 360, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 18 3 p.m. Minnesota at St. Louis NBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Monday, April 20 8 p.m. St. Louis at Minnesota CNBC, SN1, TVA Sports
Wednesday, April 22 9:30 p.m. St. Louis at Minnesota NBCSN, SN 360, TVA Sports
*Friday, April 24 TBD Minnesota at St. Louis TBD
*Sunday, April 26 TBD St. Louis at Minnesota TBD
*Wednesday, April 29 TBD Minnesota at St. Louis TBD
SERIES F – C2 vs. C3 TIME (ET) Chicago-Nashville NETWORKS
Wednesday, April 15 8:30 p.m. Chicago at Nashville NBCSN, SN 360, TVA Sports
Friday, April 17 9:30 p.m. Chicago at Nashville NBCSN, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Sunday, April 19 3 p.m. Nashville at Chicago NBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Tuesday, April 21 9:30 p.m. Nashville at Chicago NBCSN, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
*Thursday, April 23 TBD Chicago at Nashville TBD
*Saturday, April 25 TBD Nashville at Chicago TBD
*Monday, April 27 TBD Chicago at Nashville TBD
SERIES G – P1 vs. W2 TIME (ET) Winnipeg-Anaheim NETWORKS
Thursday, April 16 10:30 p.m. Winnipeg at Anaheim CNBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 18 10:30 p.m. Winnipeg at Anaheim NBCSN, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Monday, April 20 9 p.m. Anaheim at Winnipeg Sportsnet, TVA Sports, NBCSN
Wednesday, April 22 9:30 p.m. Anaheim at Winnipeg Sportsnet, TVA Sports, USA
*Friday, April 24 TBD Winnipeg at Anaheim Sportsnet
*Sunday, April 26 TBD Anaheim at Winnipeg Sportsnet
*Tuesday, April 28 TBD Winnipeg at Anaheim Sportsnet
SERIES H – P2 vs. P3 TIME (ET) Calgary-Vancouver NETWORKS
Wednesday, April 15 10 p.m. Calgary at Vancouver CBC, TVA Sports, USA
Friday, April 17 10 p.m. Calgary at Vancouver CBC, TVA Sports, CNBC
Sunday, April 19 10 p.m. Vancouver at Calgary CBC, TVA Sports, NBCSN
Tuesday, April 21 10 p.m. Vancouver at Calgary CBC, TVA Sports, USA
*Thursday, April 23 TBD Calgary at Vancouver CBC
*Saturday, April 25 TBD Vancouver at Calgary CBC
*Monday, April 27 TBD Calgary at Vancouver CBC

* – if necessary TBD – To be determined (JIP) – joined in progress

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PITTSBURGH – Riding a five-game winning streak the Winnipeg Jets came into Pittsburgh with high hopes although the Penguins had a six-game winning streak against the Jets and a 14-game unbeaten streak at home versus the Jets/Thrashers dating back to March 2007. The Penguins were missing key components in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin who were both out due to injuries. The Penguins continued their dominance and ended the Jets’ streak with a 5-3 win.

The Jets, who have been jumping on teams early with fast starts, have struggled a bit lately with that and it continued tonight as the Penguins controlled most of the play early on and kept the visitors hemmed in their own end for most of the opening frame. The Jets got the legs going in the second period and were creating a lot of chances but were still giving up lots and had an unlucky break late in the period as they were the victims of a possible to many men missed penalty that resulted in a late goal by the Penguins.

Ondrej Pavelec got the start and he stopped 25 of 29 shots taking the loss. His record falls to 12-11-6 on the season.

Thomas Greiss got the nod for Pittsburgh and made 19 saves off 22 shots a relatively easy win for him as he wasn’t very busy. He improves to 5-2-3 on the season.

Winnipeg got goals from Chris Thorburn his 4th, Jacob Trouba his 5th, Adam Lowry his 6th.

Pittsburgh goal scorers were Nick Spaling with his 7th, Steve Downie got his 9th, David Perron his 11th, Brandon Sutter his 10th, Patric Hornqvist scored his 14th an empty netter.

“It’s nice to get the first one out of the way,” Hornqvist said. “Obviously, missing a month, you lose a lot of details in your game and it’s nice to get the first out of the way and get the big win and hopefully we get better here every game.”

The Penguins got a big night from Kris Letang as he had five assists and was named the game’s first star.

“The main thing is the win,” Letang said. “I think the last time we played against them, they banged us pretty hard. They were finishing all of their checks, and again that’s what they tried to do. They tried to be physical on us and get us off our game, but everybody stuck to it.”

He made some really smooth plays and always seems to get his shots through to the net on the power play.

“When he’s skating like that, he can jump up into the play and then he can get back,” Johnston said. “That’s what he did tonight. He had a great balance to his game, and when he was going back for a couple of pucks there in the third period, they’re a heavy forechecking team, it’s tough when you’re going back for pucks like that, and I just thought every decision he made, he made with speed and he made it quick.”

The Jets did have a bright spot in this game as the line of Evander Kane , Lowry, and Thorburn played really well as they accounted for seven points , Lowry and Thorburn had a goal and assist each with Kane picking up 3 assists. All three were also throwing their weight around all game.

“I don’t think our gap control was really good,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. “We didn’t have a whole lot of pressure on the puck. We ended up leaving a lot of shots in the middle, off shots from the wing.”

For two teams who don’t play each other much they sure played an intense physical game as there were lots of big hits thrown out there. These two teams do not like each other.

The Jets will head to face the Flyers and look to get a win on Thursday night.

Follow me on Twitter @hrank94