SAN JOSE – With 44 saves in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final, San Jose Sharks goalie Martin Jones made NHL history Thursday night. Recording the most stops in an elimination game in Cup final history plus a couple of dollars will get Jones nothing more than cup of very expensive west coast coffee. But if he can replicate his play in Game 6, that will almost certainly lead go a Game 7. And then we’re talking some serious history here.
If not for the play of Jones, this Stanley Cup final probably would have been a sweep, or perhaps been over in five. It’s safe and accurate to say that because the gap in play between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Sharks in the first five games of the final has been that cavernous. With the exception of Game 4, the 26-year-old Jones has outplayed the 22-year-old Matt Murray in every game. The Penguins, in case you haven’t noticed, are outshooting the Sharks by an average of 12 shots per game. Jones has stopped 167 of their 179 shots so far for a save percentage of .933.
But Jones doesn’t see the ice as being as tilted as virtually everyone else outside the Sharks dressing room does in this series.
“All season long, I’ve thought we’ve done a good job,” Jones said. “I’m not asked to do too much, for the most part. I really like the way we’ve played and I think the shots have been a little deceptive, just the way they’ve played with throwing pucks at the net. I love playing behind these guys.”
Trust us here. That’s just Jones being gracious. Only once in the Stanley Cup final has he faced fewer than 30 shots and, oddly enough, he lost that game. The consensus is the Sharks have been pretty much chasing this series from the start and have been badly outplayed by a team that has been winning the possession game by a large margin.
But the funny thing is, none of that might matter. If Jones plays in Game 6 and 7, if it gets that far, the way he played in Game 5, there’s a good chance nothing will keep the Sharks from winning the Stanley Cup. How badly the Sharks continue to get outplayed will not be a factor. Nor will how Murray plays at the other end of the ice. None of it will make a difference because Jones will have provided that rare type of goaltending performance that is so otherworldly that it provides the margin of victory.
The goaltending factor has changed in the NHL in recent years. For the most part, teams that have won the Stanley Cup have not done so on the backs of their goaltenders. Teams that have won have had good to very good goaltending, but most of all, their goaltenders were not required to steal games or series. They were simply asked to not lose them. That is not the case here. Jones is being required to win games almost singlehandedly for his team in the Stanley Cup final and he’s delivered on that front twice.
“We definitely want to have more offensive zone time,” Jones said. “That’s something we’re going to need in the next two games. I think it might look worse than it is.”
But there’s no real reason to believe this trend is going to change. The Sharks have logged a ton of miles and look to be running on fumes at this point. An extra day off here or there isn’t going to make an enormous difference at this point. The Penguins have more jump, more depth at forward, more speed and more of an ability to create chances. It’s pretty clear that if the Sharks are going to win this series, it will be on the play of their goaltender. In the first three rounds of the playoffs, Jones was not required to make such a huge contribution. But now he is.
Jones is largely responsible for making this a series. And another performance tonight similar to Game 5 will make for what would be a hugely compelling Game 7 in a series that was anything but compelling when it began two weeks ago.
“When you win one or you win two, obviously you can get the other team thinking a little bit,” Jones said.