Welcome to the Stanley Cup Finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the San Jose Sharks, the first pairing between a bird and fish in league history.
It’s Pucks versus Bucks. ’Guins versus Fins. City of Champions versus City of … what the hell is San Jose, anyway?
Call the best-of-seven bruises whatever you want, but Balls can’t think of a stranger matchup in recent history.
In terms of numbers, population, affluence and otherwise, San Jose beats the heck out of Pittsburgh. But when it comes to sports and soul, the matchup can’t be more one-sided. Hey, Balls knows. It covered baseball in the ‘Burgh for two years. It also spent six months in San Jose one day.
See, in Pittsburgh, sports is a way of life. In San Jose, it’s an acquired taste.
In Pittsburgh, they play games in very cool, state-of-the-art venues. In San Jose, they play in hopelessly sterile and outdated places named SAP Center. (Conspiracy theory alert: The NHL wouldn’t set this up so the Sharks could leverage for a new arena and save a dormant franchise, would it?)
In Pittsburgh, everyone from li’l Johnny to grandma Gertrude knows their athletes. Ask a San Josean to name a Shark, any shark, and they’re liable to say Jaws or Mark Cuban.
In Pittsburgh, they name sandwiches after Steelers quarterbacks. In San Jose, they’re called In-N-Out burgers.
In Pittsburgh, when a local pro team doesn’t win a championship, it’s a cause for severe depression. In San Jose, it’s known as a nice try.
In Pittsburgh, fans are peeved that it took seven years to get back here. Down south, nobody asks why it took 25 years to get this far.
Unless you’re a sports nut, none of this makes one better than the other necessarily. But if there’s a pucks god, then it’s hard to like the Sharks’ chances in this one.
PENS IN SIX: Nobody but nobody has been better than Joe Pavelski in these playoffs. Yet while Joe Pa and the Sharks have been the more dominant team lately, the Penguins are the far more tested one.
Face it — the Sharks have played a bunch of Cupcakes to this point. Somehow, they avoided the Anaheim Ducks, Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars, three of the four top Western Conference teams in the regular season. Meanwhile, the Penguins eliminated the Presidents’ Trophy winners (Washington Capitals) and the defending Eastern Conference champions (Tampa Bay Lightning) in grind-it-out affairs.
The Penguins also had to beat goaltenders Henrik Lundqvist, Braden Holtby and Andrei Vasilevskiy to get here. Sorry, but Martin Jones isn’t in their league yet.
What’s more, this postseason the Penguins have outscored the Sharks in five-on-five situations by a wide margin (32-23), according to war-on-ice.com. The Corsi numbers say they’ve also controlled play at a higher rate (50.5 percent-49.2 percent).
Where the Sharks have a decided edge is on the power play. If they draw enough penalties, figure the series to be a long one. Otherwise, they’re sushi.
AND ANOTHER THING … Did you see what Sidney Crosby did the other night?! The Penguins’ captain touched the Prince of Wales Trophy! Doesn’t he know any team that touches that or the Campbell Bowl after they win the conference title is doomed to failure!
Except that, the last time Crosby touched that trophy, his team won it all, another reason why the Sharks may be in trouble.
BUT THE COW PALACE REMAINS THE SAME: Penguins coach Mike Sullivan play 11 seasons in the league, the first two in teal and black. He was one of 46 survivors on the 1992-93 group that had an 11-71-2 record and finished 77 points out of first place.
“I think this is a very different Sharks team than that one was,” Sullivan assured the NHL Network on Friday.
The Penguins have the early lead in best quotes.
MORE BARRY BAD BEHAVIOR: Some wonder why Balls is all over Barry Bonds like lint on velcro. Well, reason No. 2,525 took place in Los Angeles the other day.
Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson grew up a big Bonds fan in Palo Alto, but until earlier this month, he had never met his idol in person. When the Marlins came to town, Pederson approached the Miami Marlins batting coach to share his story and request a picture. Lovable human being that he is, Bonds blew him off, naturally. The reaction bothered Pederson so much, he admitted to being a “mental head case” the rest of the day.
Remember, Balls isn’t talking about a potty-mouthed fan or even a low-life media member here. By all accounts, Pederson is a likable guy, one of the best young players in the game.
Give Bonds credit, though. The guy doesn’t discriminate. He can be a big ass with any person, in any place at any time.
THE LIST: Things you probably didn’t know about the Sharks’ current opponents …
The Penguins swept the Oakland Seals in the 1970 quarterfinals, and you just know the Sharks have revenge in mind.
Evgeni Malkin is Russian for “puck hog.”
Longtime Penguins broadcaster Mike Lange hails from Sacramento. The Hall of Famer is known for his many pet phrases, including “Get that dog off my lawn!” in reference to opposition netminders who allow soft goals. (Martin Jones, be advised).
Penguins owner Mario Lemieux scored 690 career goals and is a regular at home games. (When last heard from, Sharks owner Hasso Plattner lived in Germany and had no idea that his team was in the playoffs.)
WHERE HAVE YOU GONE … Pat Falloon and Dave Snuggerud?
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