USATSI_9311166_154158418_lowresThe Pittsburgh Penguins could very well win it all against the San Jose Sharks, as some brave souls have predicted.

And in the interest of digging deeper, it’s time to lay out the case for the Penguins as Stanley Cup champions and to explore some of the storylines to watch when the action gets underway on Monday.

Front Office

Much has been made about how the Penguins turned things around with the arrival of head coach Mike Sullivan as the replacement for Mike Johnston. The new boss renewed the emphasis on speed and pushed the 15-10-3 Penguins over the hump to a 48-26-8 finish.

Of course, Sullivan insists there was no “magic bullet” to push his club to greatness and that’s largely true.

In fact, the Penguins have been tinkering under the hood for a while now. General manager Jim Rutherford has made a leaner and meaner team since taking over from Ray Shero and that has made franchise cornerstones like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang cement themselves. And he’s put together a team capable of controlling a 200-foot game, like when he traded Rob Scuderi for Trevor Daley or when he acquired Carl Hagelin from Anaheim for David Perron.

With a team that responds to changes and to tough love, like when Sullivan benched blueliner Olli Maatta, the front office has made all the difference in the world.

Speed

The Penguins will have to use their speed if they want to escape the clutches of the Peter DeBoer-coached Sharks and their renowned forecheck.

This means playing a simple, straightforward style. Pittsburgh’s ability to pull out of trouble will serve them well against the Sharks, who have a knack for pushing aggressive defencemen like Brent Burns into the zone.

Letang has the wheels and skill to move the puck. He can start the rush, as illustrated in the Tampa series when the Penguins dominated in possession numbers, and he can pick out teammates to create scoring chances. Pittsburgh outshot the Lightning 269-178 and they can do the same against San Jose.

HBK Line

The Penguins have been able to secure some “Sweet Chin Music” from their so-called HBK line, which consists of Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel.

The heartbreaking trio was put together mid-March and have been piling up statistics since. They’ve been the most consistent group on the Penguins. Kessel has 18 points in 18 playoff games. Hagelin has a dozen and Bonino has 15 points.

The Sharks will fight an uphill battle against the HBK line, but the real problem will be the depth Kessel and Co. afford the Penguins. With this trio cooking, Crosby and Malkin have more space to run.

The Crosby Show

Crosby, who is in the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in his career, is hitting his stride after a tough start. And for many, this will be the ultimate proving ground for the Penguins superstar.

There was a time when some wondered if Sid would ever play again, with concussion woes casting a shadow over his career. From January of 2011 to March of 2012, he suffered the effects. He reported headaches and sickness. It just wasn’t working out.

But 324 days after the concussion, Crosby was back. He scored two goals in his return game and hasn’t looked back, even with difficulties along the way. Some wondered if he’d lost a step at the start of this season, but word of his slow start has all but evaporated and now he has 15 points in 18 playoff games.

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