The Stanley Cup Final begins tomorrow night, with the Pittsburgh Penguins hosting the San Jose Sharks. It's an unlikely matchup, but a very good one, and the series has the potential to showcase some great hockey featuring some of the league's biggest stars. Here's how it all breaks down.
In this corner: The Eastern Conference champion Pittsburgh Penguins (48-26-8, +42 true goals differential). The Pens finished second in both the conference and the Metro Division, behind only the Presidents' Trophy winning Washington Capitals.
The road so far: They had a relatively easy time with the Rangers in round one, then knocked off those same Capitals in a tough second-round series. On Thursday, they finished off the Lightning in seven to win a series they'd trailed through five games.
The history books: The Penguins are making their fifth appearance in the final and gunning for their fourth Cup. The first two of those came in 1991 and 1992, when Mario Lemieux and a teenaged Jaromir Jagr led a ridiculously stacked team of future Hall of Famers. It's the third appearance in the finals for the Crosby-era team, which made back-to-back trips in 2008 and 2009 against the Red Wings, losing the first and winning the second. Back then, it seemed inconceivable that it would take that team seven years to get back.
Injury report: They're relatively healthy, with the only major piece missing being Trevor Daley, who broke his ankle against the Lightning. Daley doesn't carry the star power of some of the team's bigger names, but he was eating some tough minutes on the blueline, ranking second on the team in average ice time.
One player to watch: Kris Letang. Blueline depth was never the Penguins' strong point; unlike other teams (including San Jose), they don't have the luxury of a No. 2 guy who could be a No. 1 somewhere else. That's left Letang to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and he's done it well, looking like a Norris candidate this year. But with Daley out, he may end up playing 30-plus minutes some nights during this series. He's battled injuries over the years, and he's already earned one suspension this postseason with another near miss. With apologies to Crosby and his high-scoring friends, the Penguins could afford to lose any other player more than Letang.
Key number: 0—Number of times Bryan Rust had scored goals in back-to-back games over the course of his NHL career before doing it in Games 6 and 7 to help the Penguins come back to beat the Lightning. That seventh game was also his second two-goal game of the playoffs, something else he'd never done before this spring. Every Cup champion needs a few unexpected guys to overachieve at the right times, and Rust has been doing it for the Penguins.
Dominant narrative: Sidney Crosby's legacy. The hockey world loves to separate its stars into winners and losers; the guys who Rise To The Occasion versus the ones who Just Can't Get It Done. There's no bigger star than Crosby, and over the last few weeks there's been some questions over which group he belongs in. That was especially true after the Penguins fell behind the Lightning with Crosby slumping by his standards, going 11 games without a multi-point night.
A lot of that analysis was, well, not good, and it seems ridiculous to question the winning pedigree of a 28-year-old who's already captained a Cup winner and two Olympic gold medalists. But being ridiculous never stopped this stuff in the past, so expect to hear plenty about whether Crosby is displaying enough winner-heart-grit-compete over the next two weeks. If the Penguins lose, expect more heat on Crosby, regardless of whether he actually deserves it. If they win, he gets Certified Winner status, and becomes impervious to any further criticism. (At least for a few more years.)
The big question: Matt Murray is the guy, right? He took over the starting duties due to Marc-Andre Fleury's concussion, and held it until Game 5 of the Lightning series, when Mike Sullivan went back to his veteran. It was widely viewed as a mistake (although maybe not as dumb as it seemed); Fleury looked rusty, the Penguins lost the game, and Murray was back in net for Game 6. We all assume that's going to be a permanent state of affairs in this series, but Sullivan has planted just enough doubt that you wonder what it would take for him to make another switch.
OGWAC factor: The OGWAC, or "Old Guy Without A Cup," is a cherished playoff tradition. Most teams have at least one older player, maybe even a guy in the last season of his career, who's never won a Stanley Cup. It's impossible not to root for that guy; if his team wins, he's often the first one to have the Cup handed to him, and you can count on lots of postgame photos of him hugging it and crying. Hockey fans eat this stuff up.
So who's the best OGWAC left on the Penguins? Well... there really isn't one. There isn't a single guy on the roster who remotely qualifies as "old" and hasn't already won. Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz already have rings. The oldest guy on the team without his name on the Cup is Ben Lovejoy, but he's only 32 (and had a small role on the Penguins' 2009 team). Eric Fehr is only 30. The team's best OGWAC may not even be a player at all; assistant coach Jacques Martin is making his first trip to the final in a 30-year NHL career.
Then again, maybe Phil Kessel should count. He's technically only 28, but playing in Toronto ages a guy 10 years.