SAN JOSE – If any of the Pittsburgh Penguins players needed a reminder of the perils of overconfidence when it comes to carrying a 2-0 lead in the Stanley Cup final, they didn’t have to look very far to find the sobering reality. All they had to do was look across the ice to teammates Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz or Marc-Andre Fleury or assistant coach Sergei Gonchar.
Or they could have taken a glance in the stands of the San Jose Sharks practice rink and cast an eye to assistant GM Bill Guerin or player development coach Mark Recchi. Or they might have bumped into teammate Pascal Dupuis, the Masterton Trophy finalist who was forced to retire this season, but still travels with his mates.
All of those guys were, at one time or another, in exactly the position the Sharks are in now. All but Recchi were part of the Penguins team that dropped the first two games of the Stanley Cup final on the road to the Detroit Red Wings in 2009 before coming back to win the series in seven games. And Recchi was a stalwart for the 2011 Boston Bruins team that dropped the first two games of the final to the Vancouver Canucks before winning in seven. On the flip side, Recchi was part of the Bruins team that gagged up a 3-0 series lead to the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round of the playoffs the year before that.
No doubt that before the Penguins take to the ice for Game 3 of the final Saturday night, they’ll all have a word with players who believe this series is over. Because it isn’t. In fact, Recchi said the Penguins will learn a lot about themselves in the opening minutes of Game 3.
“Their start is going to be huge,” Recchi said. “The first five minutes of the game – that’s going to be their biggest push. We have to try to weather the storm and get them back on their heels a little bit. If we can push back and get them back on their heels, that will get them thinking. If not, then it’s going to be interesting.”
Like the Sharks, Recchi’s Bruins lost the first two games by one-goal margins, with their loss in Game 2 coming in overtime. But playing in front of a raucous crowd at the TD Garden, the Bruins scored 11 seconds into Game 3 and held a 4-0 lead after the first period en route to an 8-1 win. They were dominant in winning Game 3 by a 4-0 count and went back to Vancouver with the series tied.
Only five teams have come back to win the Stanley Cup final after going down 2-0, with two of those coming in the past seven years. Combine that with the recent penchant for teams charging back from being behind 3-0 in a series and we’re at a point in history where it seems no series lead is safe anymore. As Recchi pointed out, there are often 10 momentum swings in a game. And in this day and age, momentum seems to be such a fleeting thing that it has become far less of a factor.
“It’s a series – it’s a seven-game series and you have to be prepared for anything,” Guerin said. “When you’re in a desperate situation, you have to understand you’re in a desperate situation. And when you’re in a good situation, you have to understand how good the situation is and take advantage of it. Whether you’re up or down, there’s no great spot to be in until it’s done.”
Crosby said he and his teammates have talked about that very issue and are mindful of the fact that the SAP Center – a.k.a. The Shark Tank – is one of the most intimidating buildings in which to play at the best of times. If the Sharks can feed off the energy their crowd provides them in a positive way, it will pose some real difficulties for the Penguins.
“You expect a really desperate hockey team,” Crosby said. “In their mind, they’re only focused on winning one game. All their energy and everything is focused toward tomorrow night. We’ve all been in situations where you put all that emphasis and focus toward one game and you know they’re going to be at their best. We have to make sure we prepare to have the same desperation. We know how to play, but understanding the situation is important.”
And the same amount of preparation that makes the game sometimes look like a chess match is also responsible for these comebacks in series. “Nothing is safe,” Guerin said. “The teams are too good, they’re too detailed. The coaching is too good. The players have a game plan. You’re not just going out there hoping for the best.”