The San Jose Sharks tied Game 2 of the Cup final late but took too long to make a game of it and wound up losing. Is their inexperience becoming a problem?
PITTSBURGH – The San Jose Sharks can sugar coat the first two games of the Stanley Cup final all they want. They can tell themselves they aren’t in trouble until they lose a game at home. They can find a silver lining in coach Peter DeBoer’s third-period line juggling in Wednesday’s Game 2, which yielded a tying goal from blueliner Justin Braun on a screen from right winger Joel Ward. They can remind us they’ve lost each game by one goal, once on a late Nick Bonino tally in the third period and another in overtime on a Conor Sheary snipe.
But that doesn’t change the fact they’re down 2-0, a loss away from being on the ropes, and they’ve developed more than a few alarming tendencies. They got this far with their tremendous star power, which includes their big-name forward quartet of Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau. Well, after two periods in Game 2, that group combined for one shot. San Jose trailed 23-11 overall in shots at that point. It’s time to start asking if the Sharks have become deer in the headlights. Excluding the benched Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins iced five players with Stanley Cup rings and four who won Cups with Pittsburgh. Are the Sharks’ best players wide-eyed right now, in awe of the Stanley Cup? There’s no way to really know, but their play so far in the series makes the question worth asking. Not that DeBoer was happy to hear it asked.
“They don’t have experience? Next question,” he said.
Sorry, Pete, but, no, they don’t in fact have experience in the Stanley Cup final. This is their first. They got caught watching the Penguins for too much of Game 2, and while they did outplay Pittsburgh in the third, it was only enough for them to claw back and tie the game. The Sharks haven’t been in control of this series yet despite the fact they’ve gotten excellent goaltending from Martin Jones, who’s stopped 66 of 71 shots, good for a .930 save percentage.
“He’s been great, he gives us a chance each night, and it’s up to us find a way to score more goals and stop turning the puck over so much,” Couture said.
And Couture hit on another problem plaguing the Sharks: pressure. It caused Pittsburgh’s first goal of Game 2, in which Carl Hagelin stripped San Jose blueliner Brenden Dillon to start a scramble that culminated in a Phil Kessel tally.
“They swarm,” Couture said. “A lot of teams do it in the D-zone. They put five guys in one quadrant in that area. It’s up to us to break it. The biggest thing is you’ve got to move your feet and get out of there and create space, and we haven’t been doing it. We’ve been stagnant, standing around, giving them time to check us. They stick-check us, and pucks head out of their zone.”
Couture said he felt the Sharks looked slower than they have throughout the post-season every time he got a chance to watch them between shifts from the bench in Game 2, and Braun echoed the concern over Pittsburgh’s quick sticks. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan’s attacking system includes stretch passes and the chip-and-chase method to get behind defensemen and also busy sticks that cause turnovers.
“They just don’t stop coming,” Braun said. “They’ve got good pressure. They’ve got good sticks. A lot of pucks they knock down compared to teams we’ve played in the past. It’s pretty amazing. We’ve just got to make harder plays, stronger plays and get around that.”
DeBoer, however, wasn’t livid with his team’s performance. He felt the Sharks were better in Game 2 than in Game 1. And he doesn’t think they’re standing flat-footed, watching the action.
“Nobody’s waiting,” he said. “The other team wants to play, too. They’re very good. They’re a good team. They’re at home. They have their home crowd. We’re playing a team that wants to win as badly as we do and is a very good team.
“There are going to be ebbs and flows. They’re going to take it over for some periods, we’re going to take it over for some periods. I thought we were better tonight. But we have to find a way to create some more 5-on-5 offense. They’re not taking penalties, so we’ve got to find a way to do this 5-on-5 or push them into taking some more penalties.
The numbers tell us the flows dwarf the ebbs thus far. The shot margin by each full period in this series:
13-8 San Jose
9-6 San Jose
The scores have been close, but the shots on goal and shot attempts (126-107 for Pittsburgh over two games, per war-on-ice.com) suggest the Sharks are the inferior club right now. They can and will at least rest their hopes on the theory that adrenaline will change the series. Nothing fuels a hit or forecheck or barrage of shots or a tenacious penalty kill like a bonkers home crowd. The CONSOL Energy Center has been deafening and boisterous this series, and the Sharks expect the SAP Center to counterpunch deftly.
“That’s one bright spot we take out of this,” Pavelski said. “We’re going home. We’ve been good there, and we played a few good periods here, not enough, so we’ll try to hit that next level.”
It’s a nice sentiment, one the San Jose fans should appreciate, but no amount of screaming fans can save the Sharks unless they find a way to fend off the Penguins pressure – and to start games with more urgency.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin