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Stanley Cup Final Game 1 preview: Penguins vs. Sharks

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A couple of quick looks at the first game of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final and what the Pens will have to do to get the W...Other than, you know, score more goals

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

After what I hope was a nice Memorial Day weekend, the Pittsburgh Penguins are back in the Stanley Cup final tonight, against the Western Conference Champion San Jose Sharks.

Here's some keys that we think could determine the outcome of the game.

#1 Speed battle

Pascal Dupuis summed it up well in his latest excellent Players Tribune article:

What’s interesting about watching playoff hockey from way up in the box is that you can see the difference between being fast and playing fast. Our players have a ton of speed, but we also advance the puck very quickly as a team. It’s not just about individual skating. We get it north-south better than anyone. Nothing tested that more than the Tampa Bay series.

With their team speed, capable defensive puck-movers and offensive-minded strategy (some of which Mike laid out here earlier in the weekend), San Jose could be an even bigger test than the one the Pens passed against Tampa. It will be a very interesting look to see how these teams feel each other out early and then if one group or the other is able to control play and possession with their speed.

#2 Talent vs depth

A unique advantage the Pens have is having a 1st line player spread across 3 separate lines (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel). As Eric noted yesterday, if the HBK line draws significant minutes against the Brenden DillonRoman Polak pairing, that's an edge for Pittsburgh that's going to have to be exploited.

On the flip-side of the coin, Pittsburgh is going to have to ask a lot out of their second pair of Olli Maatta and Ben Lovejoy to keep Logan Couture (8 goals, 16 assists) as quiet as possible. Couture's 24 points lead the NHL playoffs.

#3 Can't play in front of them

Something that Pens coach Mike Sullivan said really stood out to me in one of the Showtime "All Access" episodes. Malkin was trying to skate through a Tampa defender who had perfect position and was able to keep his base and pretty easily dumped Malkin to the ice. Sullivan shouted on the bench (I may be paraphrasing slightly) something to the effect of "We can't play in front of 'em! It's too easy!"

This builds on point 1 above, but the Penguins are constantly told by Sullivan in the locker-room to use their speed to get defensemen to turn. When pucks are getting behind them, or they have to turn because they're worried about how fast the Pens are coming, that's when Pittsburgh is at their most dangerous. This is a big reason players like Kessel, Carl Hagelin, Crosby and Bryan Rust have had a lot of recent success. They're using their speed to get behind the defensemen, or at least get the D to have to turn, taking them out of a comfort zone where they can play straight up with their back to their goal.

#4 Goalie duel

We end with the goalies because it always boils down to the man in the net at this time of year.

Matt Murray started 13 NHL playoff games in just over 5 weeks  from April 19 - May 20, culminating in getting pulled in Game 4 vs Tampa. Sullivan later suggested his young goalie needed a rest for Game 5. That seemed to help, as Murray looked much more sharp and in early-playoff form for G6+7 against Tampa, allowing only three total goals. The SC Final schedule is fairly spread out, with as many as four breaks of 2 days in between games. Hopefully that benefits Murray.

At the other end of the ice, 26-year old Martin Jones is barely more experienced than Murray, with all 18 of his NHL postseason starts coming this season. Of the 18 games, 10 were quality starts according to Hockey Reference. (Murray, btw has 10 QS in 15 games this spring)

He had a pretty good regular season, which was both his first as a full-time starter and his first year in San Jose; winning 37 of 65 starts and posting a great goals against of 2.27 but a rather average (for this day and age) save % of .918%. One reason for a low save percentage is probably that the Sharks do not allow very many shots against, and that low GAA provides evidence of strong team defense that can control the play and not rely too heavily on their goaltender.

Jones has been pretty good across his career against Pittsburgh in 4 starts he's got a 2-2 record, a 2.37 GAA and a .923 save %. He doesn't seem like the type to steal games (though he is talented) but he's not been asked to make many 38 save nights this spring.

The goaltender battle will be interesting, as it always is. It's pretty odd that both goalies, combined, have 33 playoff starts and they've all been in this season. Marc-Andre Fleury, for instance, has 92 on his own. Inexperience probably doesn't figure to be too key of a storyline, just a note that both goaltenders will be in untested waters as the Stanley Cup final begins.