Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 2, 2016

Penguins Outskating And Outthinking The Sharks

As the final series of this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs shifts to the west coast one way to view the action so far is that all Pittsburgh has done is protect home ice, and by the narrowest possible of margins. The Penguins won Game One 3-2, and took Game Two in overtime 2-1. Surely that is the interpretation that Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and the rest of the San Jose Sharks prefer. As Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer said in his postgame interview after Wednesday night’s loss, “Game One was decided in the last two minutes. Tonight was an overtime game. I think we’ll hold off on the funeral. We’ve got a lot of hockey left to play.”

True enough, and if San Jose can match Pittsburgh’s home record the series could be all even by Monday night. In that case, as has been true from the start, an eventual Sharks victory will require them to steal at least one game at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. Momentum can shift quickly in a short series, sometimes in just the two minutes it takes for a crucial penalty kill, or as little as the handful of seconds required for three skaters to finish off an odd man rush. Yet given the weight of history, and after two contests that were not as close as their final scores, it’s going to take more than the familiar confines of the Shark Tank for San Jose to deny Pittsburgh’s bid for a fourth Stanley Cup.

First there’s the historical context. Forty-nine times a team has held a two games to none lead in the Stanley Cup Finals. All but five of those squads wound up hoisting the Cup. While the trailing team has won Game Three better than fifty percent of the time, coming all the way back has proven to be a tall order. Still two of the five comebacks occurred recently. In 2011 Boston dropped the first two contests in Vancouver. Back at home the Bruins were galvanized by a cheap shot to Nathan Horton’s head early in Game Three. Boston rallied around their fallen teammate, thrashing the Canucks 8-1 and 4-0 to square the series before ultimately claiming the Cup by taking Game Seven on the road. Two seasons earlier it was the same Pittsburgh franchise now leading that rallied from two games down against the Red Wings. In that series matters turned when the Penguins came out flying in the third period of Game Three, outshooting Detroit 10-3 and turning a tie game into a 4-2 victory.

While it can be done and has been within the careers of many of the players skating in this series, the rarity of such comebacks is a reminder to San Jose fans that their team now has almost no room for error. Goaltender Martin Jones kept his team in both games, turning aside shot after shot from the Penguins. Pittsburgh outshot San Jose forty-one to twenty-six in Game One and thirty to twenty-two in Game Two. The Sharks have to find a way to correct that imbalance. Unless he’s going to start scoring from his own crease, Jones alone can’t win the Cup for San Jose.

In the earlier rounds of the playoffs the Sharks were the faster team, but in the Finals they’ve been chasing the Penguins, especially the talented rookies Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust. The pair staked Pittsburgh to a two goal lead in the first period of Game One, and Sheary netted the overtime game winner in Game Two. Meanwhile the Penguins aggressive forechecking up and down the ice has prevented the Sharks from establishing any offensive rhythm.

Pittsburgh has also denied San Jose the opportunity to exploit a likely edge on special teams. During the regular season San Jose had the most deadly power play in the league, netting sixty-two goals with the man advantage. The Sharks added another eighteen power play goals through the first three rounds of the playoffs. But the disciplined Penguins haven’t allowed the Sharks to unleash that particular weapon. Through more than one hundred twenty-two minutes of action San Jose has been on the power play for just six.

The way in which Game Two ended had to be especially dispiriting to the Sharks, because it showed that at least so far the Penguins are not just the better team physically, but mentally as well. As the teams readied for a faceoff to the right of Jones, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby pulled Sheary aside and told him to line up by the sidewall rather than out in the middle of the offensive zone. Crosby then instructed defensemen Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin to switch positions, and told Letang that he would send the puck back to the point from the faceoff. The Pittsburgh captain directed his defenseman to forego launching a one-timer at the net and instead look for Sheary coming off the boards into unguarded space by the faceoff circle. Starting with Crosby’s clean win of the draw, the play worked so perfectly that Sheary had time to steady the puck twice before launching a wrist shot that the screened Jones likely never saw.

Crosby was modest in victory, crediting Letang and Sheary while suggesting that he often calls set plays on faceoffs and most of the time they don’t work out. But the fact that he had the presence of mind to draw one up on the fly, with the game in overtime, is but the latest example of the talent that has made the 28-year old one of the NHL’s elite players since he debuted as a teenager ten seasons ago.

In defeat San Jose’s Logan Couture was left to complain that Crosby “cheats” on faceoffs and that NHL officials allow him to do so because of his stature. Crosby’s supposed cheating is simply attempting to anticipate and time when the referee will drop the puck, something that every NHL player who’s ever taken a faceoff does. Suggesting collusion by the league’s officials is just a weak attempt to influence future penalty calls. When the series resumes in San Jose this weekend, it will take more than whining for the Sharks to get back into the Stanley Cup Finals.

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