"Navigating Uncharted Waters" - Previewing the 2016 Stanley Cup Finals

The Sharks will take the ice at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh for Game 1 on Monday night.

By Ryan Ward | @RyanJWard 

It’s a sportsmageddon of epic proportions, on a scale we've never seen before in Northern California. Tomorrow night, the Bay Area will be treated to Game 7 of the NBA Western Conference Finals in Oakland, while simultaneously watching San Jose skate in their first ever Stanley Cup Finals in Pittsburgh. Spoiled, aren’t we? I don’t know about you, but I’ll be hunting for that seat at the bar that’s perfectly centered between the hockey and hoops screens. No doubt my head will be on a swivel this Memorial Day. 

Fortunately for us, the puck drops on Game 1 of the Stanley Cup an hour before tip-off inside Oracle, so the first period should garner our full, undivided attention. But before you don your black and teal (with blue and yellow undershirt) and head out to your local spot Monday night, here’s what you need to know about the Sharks’ first ever foray into the Stanley Cup, in what has to be considered a dead-heat matchup:

The star power is strong on both sides:

Each team boasts former MVP’s and All-Stars aplenty, so it’s difficult to give an edge to either team here. Sidney "The Kid" Crosby is considered one of the best - if not the best - forwards in the NHL, and at 28 he’s still in the thick of his prime after being tabbed the “next Gretzky” ahead of the 2005 amateur draft. Evgeni Malkin is also a former MVP, and these two have tasted success before, winning the Stanley Cup together in 2009. The Sharks will match Pittsburgh’s star power with Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Brent Burns, and Logan Couture, but as much playoff experience as those four have, they’ve never lifted the Cup. Still, Pavelski has been scoring at an incredible clip this postseason with 13 goals, and is the front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy (postseason MVP) heading into the series.

Don’t blink, you might miss it:

These teams will match each other skate for skate, because they’re both built around two things: moving fast and scoring frequently. Winning loose pucks will be a key to each team’s success, and momentum shifts may come down to the simple things, such as racing down to negate an icing call.

A clash of special teams titans:

The Sharks are scary good on the power play, somehow scoring at an even higher clip on the man advantage this postseason than they did in the regular season, when they ranked 3rd in the league. They’ll pit their 27% postseason efficiency against the Penguins 5th-ranked penalty kill, and it will be must-see-TV whenever Pittsburgh takes a penalty. The flip side isn’t as intriguing, but could be just as important. The Penguins aren’t known for scoring on their power play, and the Sharks aren’t known for their penalty kill...so maybe that makes the Pittsburgh power play and SJ penalty kill the biggest keys to this series. I have a feeling.

You ain’t seen nothin’ yet:

If you thought the Tank was rocking for the Western Conference Finals, you’re in for a treat this series. Year in and year out, it doesn’t matter who matches up in the final series: the Stanley Cup brings out the most passionate, enthusiastic, and LOUD fans American sports has to offer. Oracle Arena can break some decibel records when Steph Curry gets into Human Torch Mode, but my guess is that the Shark Tank will be sending shock waves throughout Silicon Valley come Game 3 (especially if the Sharks bring back a 2-0 series lead). Who knows why we go so crazy for what is widely considered the 4th-favorite major American sport, but maybe it has something to do with the prize being SO. DAMN. COOL. Let’s be honest, there’s a reason hockey fans cheer “We want the Cup!!!”...it’s far and away the most prestigious and storied sports trophy in the world.

It may be unfamiliar territory for the Sharks, but make no mistake, this year’s version is as prepared and well-equipped to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup as the team has ever been. All it took was 25 years and some lowered expectations.

Oh, and my prediction?: San Jose in six.