SAN JOSE – Going into Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final, the Pittsburgh Penguins have held the lead for 69 minutes and 20 seconds of the 194 minutes and 53 seconds that have been played in the series. The San Jose Sharks, by contrast, have held the lead for zero minutes and zero seconds.
The reality is that the Sharks have been chasing this series since the opening faceoff in Game 1 and that will have to change if they have any designs on winning the series. A win in Game 4 would help their cause to be sure, but a decisive win where they jump out into the lead and keep it would really change the complexion of the series.
Sharks coach Peter DeBoer is well aware of this development. His team has won 13 games in the playoffs and has scored first in 10 of them. “I think early in the playoffs, it was a huge part,” DeBoer said. “I think the L.A. series, we had the lead almost every game, maybe other than one. It’s a big part. The scores show that. The team that scores first usually wins. We get it. We’ve got to find a way to get it going. It’s not like this has been an issue throughout the playoffs. I think we’ve actually been pretty good at getting the first goal throughout the playoffs.”
Tomas Hertl, who took a big hit from Patric Hornqvist in the third period of Game 2, will miss Game 4. It had an effect on the Sharks in Game 3 when DeBoer shortened his bench for the first time in the series. Dainius Zubrus, who came in to replace Hertl, saw almost no ice time in the third period and overtime and Melker Karlsson, who was moved up to Hertl’s spot on the top line, was replaced by Logan Couture.
ICE NOT NICE
It’s a shame that the NHL’s showcase event comes at a time when the players are most banged-up and fatigued and the ice is atrocious, but that is the reality of playing a Stanley Cup final in June. As bad as the ice was at the Consol Energy Center for Games 1 and 2, it was even worse at the SAP Center for Game 3. One observer called it, “the worst ice I’ve seen in 25 years.”
Now, if you’re looking for a scapegoat, the weather is one. Temperatures in San Jose have been in the 90s Fahrenheit, but it’s a dry heat. Another is superstar tenor Andrea Bocelli, who postponed his concert at the SAP Center Saturday night and held it the night before to accommodate the Sharks game. That meant the crew at the arena could not get the ice ready until about 4 a.m. the day of Game 3.
Penguins defenseman Ben Lovejoy, who is Dartmouth educated, offered an outstanding assessment of the situation. “We’re playing hockey in California in June,” he said. “A great atmosphere to play in, but the weather outside is 100 degrees and you can’t expect the ice to be like it is in Edmonton in February. It’s just part of the game, it works both ways for both teams and we just have to all be smarter about it.”
Lovejoy has experience with suspect ice, having played parts of three seasons for the Anaheim Ducks and his home games at the Honda Center, where the ice isn’t the greatest. “Ice across the NHL isn’t perfect,” he said. “We have concerts in these buildings, soccer games, arena football games…it’s part of the deal. We understand that and we’ve been doing it for years. It’s not an excuse. We’re going to go out and play our best hockey and we need to adapt.”
After Game 3, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan acknowledged that it forces teams to make more simple plays. That’s not what fans want to see when it comes to showcasing the game’s best players, but it’s a necessity.
“We talked with our team about simplifying the game. It’s hard to make a lot of lateral plays when the puck’s bouncing,” Sullivan said. “As (Game 3) wore on, we talked to them about just simplifying the game, playing forward, putting pucks at the net, not looking for the extra pass. I think anytime when you play this late in the year, I think a lot of times the ice breaks down, no matter where you are. Just simplifying the process, playing straight ahead, not looking for that extra pass. A lot of times when you do, the puck bounces, it bobbles. Sometimes you can feed the opponent’s transition game.”
SHARKS WILL KEEP SHOOTING
The Penguins have blocked a total of 73 shots in the first three games of the series, including 20 by Sharks defenseman Brent Burns alone. That’s an enormous departure from the regular season for the Penguins, whose possession numbers were much better once Mike Sullivan took over as coach, hence the need to block shots was diminished.
The Penguins are averaging 24.3 blocked shots per game in the Stanley Cup final, which is an astounding 11 more per game than they did during the regular season. Some of that might be because they realize that goalie Matt Murray has been very good in tight, but has had some trouble with seeing-eye shots from the blueline area. In any event, it’s emerging as a factor in the series.
To his credit, DeBoer remains undeterred and said his team will continue to keep shooting. “I think the way Pittsburgh plays, every opportunity they get, they’re fronting, looking to knock pucks down. As opposed to getting involved in boxing you out, they’re looking to knock them down and go the other way. We’ve got to get them by that wall of blockers some way somehow, either with high tips or using the boards or going around them or going through them. The ones that have got through, we scored on some of them,
Justin Braun’s goal the other night.”
PENS MIGHTIER THAN WE THOUGHT
The Sharks entered the Stanley Cup final with a decided physical advantage, but the Penguins have so far done a very good job of withstanding the hits and not being intimidated by the Sharks size advantage.
“Teams have been trying to outmuscle us, intimidate us, for the last three months,” Lovejoy said. “The Rangers did it, Washington did it. Last series was a little different, but we’re a team that prides itself on being brave, on going back for pucks, on winning pucks against bigger players. On taking hits. We need to continue to do that.”