The Stanley Cup finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks -- which get underway with Game 1 on Monday at 8 p.m. ET in Pittsburgh -- will feature a collision of some pretty talented players. Which matchups will be the most compelling? Our writers picked their favorites.
No one has been able to slow down Thornton and Pavelski in the playoffs. The Penguins normally use superstar Crosby as the shutdown center versus the other team's most dangerous line. Crosby was outstanding while going head-to-head with either Nicklas Backstrom or Evgeny Kuznetsov (essentially, whoever was playing with Alex Ovechkin) against the Washington Capitals in the second round. But this would be his biggest test yet. Center/winger Alex Steen, the St. Louis Blues' two-way wizard, had success against Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks and Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars in the opening two rounds, but the Sharks' dynamic duo proved to be a whole other ballgame. Whether it was Steen or David Backes, the Blues had trouble with Thornton and Pavelski, the Sharks' top line with Tomas Hertl, producing all series long and spending long periods of time and enjoying much puck possession in the Blue' zone. Just how this 5-on-5 matchup plays itself out between Crosby and the two Joes -- if indeed that's how the Penguins go -- will have a huge bearing on who wins the Stanley Cup. --Pierre LeBrun
Vlasic's game is gaining greater appreciation with every round he wins -- and for good reason. He has shut down some great players along the way, with Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko being his latest victim. Until Tarasenko scored two goals late in Game 6 (with the Sharks enjoying a healthy lead), Vlasic had helped keep the talented Blues winger completely off the score sheet. Sharks defenseman Brent Burns gets most of the attention because of what he brings offensively, but Vlasic is just as important to that defense in his shutdown role. He takes great pride in his defense and faces his biggest test yet in Crosby, if that's the matchup Peter DeBoer tries to get.
Sharks PP against Penguins PK
The Sharks have the best power play in the postseason among teams that played at least two rounds, clicking at a rate of 27 percent. Because of that strong power play, all three penalty kills that faced the Sharks (Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators, Blues) ended the playoffs with a penalty kill at 80 percent or lower. The Penguins penalty kill is at 83.6 percent and PKers Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen face their biggest test of the postseason against the Sharks. The key for Pittsburgh will be preventing San Jose from getting set up because onceThornton gets the puck and starts surveying the ice to find Brent Burns with a one-timer or Pavelski sneaking into an opening, it's often too late. --Craig Custance
How intriguing is this goaltending matchup? Two young men who entered this playoff year with a host of questions about their ability to stand up to the pressures and demands of playoff hockey now face off with the Stanley Cup on the line. Heck, Matt Murray wasn't even healthy enough to play for the Penguins until Game 3 of the opening round, and that was after spending most of the season in the American Hockey League. Both Murray, who just turned 22, and Jones, 26, have shaken off minor wobbles this spring to lead their teams at the most crucial times. I thought Jones had hit a wall when the Predators won twice in a row to force a seventh game in the second round, but the former Kings backup stood tall in Game 7 and again in the Western Conference finals. Murray was again lifted after two periods in Game 4 of the conference finals, and didn't start Game 5, in favor of veteran Marc-Andre Fleury in large part because head coach Mike Sullivan felt Murray was wearing down. The Pens lost Game 5 and then Murray came on to win two straight elimination games, including Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, 2-1. The two goalies come into the finals sporting similar numbers, with Jones holding an edge in goals-against average -- 2.12 compared to 2.22 -- while Murray has a .924 save percentage, slightly more impressive than Jones's .919. In short, two young goalies who have proven to be unflappable are now hoping to carry that coolness to a dance with the Cup in about two weeks. --Scott Burnside
Mike Sullivan vs. Peter DeBoer
When it comes to the Stanley Cup finals, the men drawing up the X's and O's are major reasons these teams have reached this point. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan and the Sharks' bench boss Peter DeBoer proved worthy in each of their first seasons with their respective teams. After three seasons with the Florida Panthers (2008-11) and four seasons with the New Jersey Devils (2011-15), DeBoer was hired to fix things in San Jose. He had a roster full of talent -- and egos -- and it was his job to make it work, and he did so with the likes of Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Pavelski. Sullivan was brought into Pittsburgh for the same reason. Spanning 26 seasons in the NHL as a player, head coach and assistant coach, Sullivan was hired by the Penguins in the summer to coach the organization's AHL affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. When the parent team stumbled the first two months of the season, Mike Johnston was fired and Sullivan was promoted. The first thing Sullivan did was to get the superstars -- Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang and Fleury -- on the same page. This team couldn't win as a bunch of individuals. The same could be said for the Sharks.
There are so many similarities between the teams. Both teams are fast and deep. Both teams want to get the defense involved in the rush. Special teams on both sides are dangerous. Sullivan and DeBoer have their teams playing their best hockey. Each will want certain matchups. Sullivan preached the importance of staying disciplined against the Lightning, and it worked. The same can be said for this series against the Sharks. Meanwhile, DeBoer likes to use the term "battle-tested" and his team has responded. Both coaches are students of the game. They've proved able to get the most out of the best players in the world at the most important times. Let the chess match begin. --Joe McDonald