SAN JOSE – Paul Martin spent the previous five seasons in Pittsburgh before inking a four-year contract with the Sharks over the summer.
The fact he will face so many of his former teammates in his first career Stanley Cup Final, beginning on Monday in Pittsburgh, was something he knew might happen before the playoffs even began six weeks ago.
“Once Pitt finished the season the way that they did and got into the playoffs, and the way that we were playing, in the back of your head you know it’s a possibility,” Martin said on Friday. “Each round that goes by you know that it’s obviously even more likely going to happen. I think I was kind of expecting it, for the most part.”
The Penguins will almost certainly be the toughest opponent the Sharks have faced throughout their impressive playoff run, at least offensively. The Kings were exposed by San Jose as being woefully top-heavy, Nashville couldn’t match the Sharks’ depth, and St. Louis seemed gassed at the end of the Western Conference Final after playing a pair of series that went the full seven games.
Some familiar names lead the Penguins, including Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but it’s Phil Kessel’s 18 points that paces the team through three rounds. Kessel is playing with Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin on the second line, leaving Malkin to center Chris Kunitz and Brian Rust on the third line. It was Rust who was the hero in Game 7 of the Lightning series on Thursday, scoring both of his team’s goals in a 2-1 win.
“Their team is spread out with a lot of skill up and down,” Joe Pavelski said. “You just have to be on your toes and make good plays, you have to check well, you have to do a lot of those little things.”
Crosby, of course, is still the head of the snake. After Jan. 1, he led the NHL with 58 points, earning himself another nomination for the Hart Trophy (Joe Thornton was second with 56 points). He has 15 points (6g, 9a) in 18 games in the playoffs.
“He's a world class player with a fourth-line work ethic,” said Pete DeBoer, who coached Crosby on a World Junior team and a World Championship team. “I think that's what makes him special.
“For us, you can't get outworked by this guy. His skill level is off the chart, but I think that's what separates him. We’ve got to make sure we're not getting outworked by him because if you are, then he becomes really dangerous."
On the blue line, Kris Letang is the Penguins’ biggest threat. He has 10 points in the playoffs while skating 28:46 seconds a night, and was third in scoring among defensemen in the regular season with 67 points.
DeBoer, who saw Letang and the Penguins plenty in his three-and-a-half seasons in New Jersey, said it was “noticeable when [Letang] was in or out of the lineup for them. He was that important of a guy.”
At the same time, the Sharks have already beaten teams with number one blueliners that are just as renowned as Letang.
“We played [Drew] Doughty in the first round, we played Nashville's defense, which are as good as anybody in the league, and there's three or four of those guys. We just played [Alex] Pietrangelo, [Kevin] Shattenkirk. So I think we know what we have to do to make sure that the proper attention's being paid to him."
After Letang, Pittsburgh’s defense group is a little thin, especially with Trevor Daley out for the series with a broken ankle. The Sharks have continually rolled out all three of their defense pairs with regularity, something the Penguins might not be able to do against San Jose’s attack, which is averaging 3.50 goals-per-game in the postseason.
Just like the Sharks, though, the Penguins have shown that they can come in waves, therefore keeping the puck out of their own end. In Game 7 against Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh outshot the Lightning 39-17 in advancing to its first Final since 2009.
Earlier, Pittsburgh defeated the Rangers in five games, Capitals in six, and Lightning in seven, after finishing the regular season with 14 wins over their final 16 games under coach Mike Sullivan, who took over in mid-December.
Thornton played with Sullivan – an original Shark – in Boston in 1997-98 as a rookie. The Penguins went 33-16-5 after hiring him on Dec. 12.
“Obviously, great coach this year,” Thornton said. “He really turned that team around. They were kind of sputtering a little bit and then he comes in, he gives the team an identity.”
The Sharks and Penguins didn’t face each other with Sullivan at the helm, as the most recent meeting was on Dec. 1. They’ll quickly get acquainted.
“They’re a great team with some great players,” Thornton said. “We’ve got to be ready come Monday night.”