The San Jose Sharks are in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history after dispatching the St. Louis Blues in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals.
The Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last night to book their ticket to the final round as well. This set up a series that is sure to excite anyone who watches. After all, nothing is more entertaining than two teams battling for The Cup.
Pittsburgh has a high-powered offense that features Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and the now-famous HBK line (Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel). These five players alone have combined for 23 goals and 75 points this postseason. Their scoring talent has helped propel the Penguins to where they are now.
Luckily, San Jose has successfully shut down its opponents’ best players throughout these playoffs. Vladimir Tarasenko, Filip Forsberg, and Tyler Toffoli were all non-factors against the Sharks during their respective rounds, and other notable scorers were quiet as well.
To get an idea of how good San Jose has been at keeping the most dangerous players off of the score sheet, take a look at this chart:
|Team||Top Five Points/Game Players in Regular Season||Regular Season Points/Game (Combined||Postseason vs. Sharks Points/Game (Combined)|
|Los Angeles Kings||Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli, Milan Lucic, Drew Doughty||0.744||0.440|
|Nashville Predators||Filip Forsberg, Roman Josi, James Neal, Shea Weber, Ryan Johanson||0.730||0.543|
|St. Louis Blues||Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Steen, Paul Stastny, David Backes, Kevin Shattenkirk||0.729||0.367|
The scoring pace of these top players fell significantly while they were facing the Sharks in the playoffs. Even the St. Louis Blues, a club that made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals, saw its best skaters get their production cut in half.
So, who are the guys in charge of shutting down these elite scorers? The answer is the defensive pairs of Marc-Edouard Vlasic/Justin Braun and Paul Martin/Brent Burns.
To say these four players have been good is an understatement. In fact, they have arguably been the best four defensemen in the playoffs.
A quick breakdown of the graph: higher up = tougher competition ; more to the right = better possession numbers ; bluer dot = better scoring chance differential ; bigger dot = better plus/minus. Please note that all data is taken from 5v5, score close situations in the 2016 playoffs.
San Jose’s top four blueliners have played out of their minds for the past three rounds. They have some of the best possession numbers despite facing the toughest competition, and their team is able to create and convert on more chances than anyone else while they are on the ice.
Vlasic, in particular, has been dominate in the postseason; the Sharks have an incredible plus-40 scoring chance differential in score-close situations while he is skating.
Pittsburgh’s offense will definitely be a challenge, but San Jose’s defense has proven it can shut down the best in the league night in and night out. They have rendered their opponents’ scorers useless and have consistently pushed the play into the attacking zone.
Last year, defense was the weakest part of San Jose’s game. Now, it is possibly their strongest.
How’s that for a turnaround?