The most exciting Stanley Cup finals matchup would be ...

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Friday, May 20, 2016

Can Jumbo Joe help the Sharks shed their playoff shortcomings? Will Sid cement his legacy as one of the game's greats?'s hockey experts expound on why each potential Stanley Cup finals pairing would provide compelling storylines.

San Jose Sharks versusTampa Bay Lightning

The networks who are rights-holders on both sides of the border probably view this as a nightmare matchup, two non-traditional hockey markets meeting for the Cup.

But man, would the hockey ever make up for it.

You want to talk about two speedy, skilled hockey clubs that espouse a positive philosophy in terms of their style and brand of game? The Bolts and Sharks would make for a rocking finals.

I have no idea who would win, but I'll go with the Sharks since I used to often pick San Jose to win the Cup. As Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic joked the other the day, "Well, you're due to be right one of these years.''

So why not this year?

Imagine 36-year-old Joe Thornton raising the Stanley Cup over his beard after all these years of wearing the Sharks' playoff hiccups on his shoulders.

A Lightning Cup victory would also be compelling because it would mean that the Bolts got right back to where they were a year ago before that heartbreaking loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. It would be sweet redemption only one year later, capping off a season in which just about every imaginable distraction or injury tried to derail them.

And whether he plays or not in these playoffs, imagine seeing Lightning captain Steven Stamkos out there on the ice after the buzzer, raising that Cup before his contract expires this summer and he and the team head toward an uncertain future. Great stuff.

Which is to say: A Tampa-San Jose Cup finals would be a winner, either way, in many ways. Sharks in 7.-- Pierre LeBrun

St. Louis BluesversusPittsburgh Penguins

This matchup would make for great theater. In the Blues, you have a tortured fan base that has never won a Stanley Cup and also lost its NFL team this year. It would be a fascinating story about a city that is truly getting behind its hockey team.

The Penguins -- who looked like they'd be regular title contenders after winning the 2009 Stanley Cup -- are trying to reassert themselves among the great teams of this era. Another Cup would be a chance for Sidney Crosby to reclaim his place among the greatest leaders in the game, to cement his legacy as one of the best ever.

On the ice, it would be a contrast in styles. The Blues like to play a physical, structured game. They're at their best when they get the puck in deep and get the forecheck going. They're deep up and down the lineup and would hold an edge in that department over the Penguins.

The Penguins' speed would absolutely give the Blues fits, as theDallas Stars and Sharks have at times this postseason. This series might look similar to Capitals-Penguins in the second round, with the Blues being a little deeper and more mobile than the Washington Capitalsdefensively. It would be a battle to see which team could impose its style of play on the other.

Ultimately, if it comes down to this, the path through the Western Conference will have taken its toll on the Blues. They played two seven-game series to start the playoffs, and the Sharks probably will have pushed them to the brink as well. Because of the fatigue factor and their trouble with speed at times: Penguins in 7. -- Craig Custance

San Jose Sharks versus Pittsburgh Penguins

Two teams I picked to get bounced in the second round would meet in a Stanley Cup finals that could be one of the fastest series in recent memory.

The teams have plenty of parallels. They would advance to the finals thanks to deep, fast and proficient forward units that are buoyed by a fast-skating, skilled back end that has no trouble transitioning the puck from the defensive end to the offensive one. Both teams have an ultra-skilled defenseman capable of joining the rush at any moment in Brent Burns of the Sharks and Kris Letang of the Penguins. Burns is among the league leaders in playoff points.

And how about determination and drive shown by these teams' respective captains? Those qualities come in spades in San Jose'sJoe Pavelskiand Hart Trophy finalist Sidney Crosby, who has been a force at both ends of the ice, even if he did endure an eight-game scoring drought.

Both teams are also riding goaltenders who have never experienced this kind of playoff run. San Jose'sMartin Joneswas a backup for theLos Angeles Kingswhen they won the Cup in 2014,and 21-year-old rookie Matt Murrayhas supplanted the injuredMarc-Andre Fleury as Pittsburgh's starter.

The Sharks have never been to a Stanley Cup finals, and you have to wonder if nerves will come into play when they finally get to that point. They've already exorcised so many playoff demons this spring. Do they have one more level to give, or will there be an inevitable exhale?

The Penguins' depth -- 15 players have scored goals thus far this postseason -- would push them past the Sharks. CenterMatt Cullen, 39, has discovered the fountain of youth and anchors a fourth line for Pittsburgh that is fourth in name only. Phil Kessel has shaken off an up-and-down regular season to provide meaningful contributions while playing on an explosive line with Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino, and youngsters Bryan Rust, Brian Dumoulin, Conor Sheary andTom Kuhnhacklhave given the Penguins the sparkthey've been lacking in recent playoff years. Penguins in 6. --Scott Burnside

Tampa Bay Lightning versus St. Louis Blues

The Lightning and Blues advancing to the Stanley Cup finals would be a better series than most people might believe. It would be the second trip in as many seasons to the finals for the Lightning, who hope to erase their loss to the Blackhawks last spring.

Tampa Bay has become a great hockey market, and if the Lightning were to win another championship (they won the franchise's first Cup in 2004), it would help grow the game there even more. The key to Tampa Bay's hopes is goaltender Ben Bishop, along with the health and hopeful return to the lineup of Stamkos. If all the pieces fall into place, the Lightning could hoist the Cup in less than a month.

For the Blues, a team that has never won a Stanley Cup in 40 postseason appearances, a championship would electrify an already-strong fan base. Known for their physical style of play, the Blues would have trouble defending a fast-paced and deep team like the Lightning. That means it would have to come down to St. Louis goalie Brian Elliott and his ability to stop a potent offense.

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock won a Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars (1999), and Tampa coach Jon Cooper guided his team to the finals last season. But the recent past is the winner here.Lightning in 6.-- Joe McDonald

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