PITTSBURGH – If the San Jose Sharks are going to come back from the near dead and win this Stanley Cup final – and with this group anything is possible – it is going to need carbon copies of Game 5 in Games 6 and 7.
Can it happen? Sure. Maybe Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray’s bubble has burst and the Sharks have finally pierced his armor. Perhaps whoever is refereeing the next two games will have as terrible outings as Dan O’Rourke and Dan O’Halloran had in Game 5 Thursday night. It’s possible Sharks defenseman Brent Burns will continue to commit everything short of homicide and get away with it. (Whether that happens will be largely contingent on whether or not the officials continue their generally inept performance. That is indeed a very likely development.) Maybe Martin Jones bails his team out for 120 more minutes and wins the Conn Smythe Trophy. And finally, the star who flies under the radar on a team chock full of enormous personalities, Logan Couture, just might continue to be the best player on the ice.
Yes, all of those things have to happen, just the way they did in Game 5, a 4-2 win by the Sharks that sent about 50,000 fans home unhappy – hey, whatever happened to that NHL crackdown on viewing parties, anyway? – and leaving the Penguins lamenting how they let an elimination game get away from them. With the opportunity to win the Stanley Cup on home ice for the first time in franchise history, the Penguins were horrendous for about three minutes and dominant for 57, outshooting the Sharks 46-22 and absolutely crushing them in shot attempts by a 76-36 margin.
But the reason why they were not skating around the Consol Energy Center ice with the Stanley Cup hoisted above their heads was because of the play of Jones. And what has to worry the Penguins about all of this is that if Jones continues this pattern, it won’t matter how badly they outplay the Sharks. Jones was outstanding in Games 1 through 4 and in Game 5 was otherworldly, providing the kind of goaltending that can be the difference in a series. And that difference-making ability becomes even more pronounced when the chasm in performance between him and the goalie at the other end of the ice is as wide as it was in Game 5.
“Yeah, he was great,” Couture said of Jones. “He made some big-time saves. He’s been playing like this for a long time, regular season, playoffs. A lot of people unfortunately don’t get to see him, us being on the West Coast. He’s been unbelievable for us.”
The same could have been said about Couture himself. The leading scorer in this spring’s playoffs came through with a three-point performance when his team desperately needed its best players to step up. Couture entered the game with just two assists in the final, which included bagels in Games 3 and 4. But he accounted for almost a quarter of his team’s shots (five) and three points. His play at both ends of the ice was exemplary.
But the player who might have had the biggest impact on the game was Burns. Not only did he exploit what seems to be an emerging Matt Murray weakness with a goal that was a carbon copy of Joonas Donskoi’s overtime game-winner in Game 3, he was as nasty a piece of work as he’s been in his career. He was Chris Pronger with no front teeth and a mangy beard. When he wasn’t jumping into the play and making things happen offensively, he was sticking every Penguin who came near him, crosschecking opponents in the back, punching them in the face and generally making Sprague Cleghorn and Eddie Shore look like choir boys. And here’s the thing. Burns was free to do it all game and he knew it. And that’s because the referees either had a truly putrid game or they were in lockstep with the age-old notion that you have to let the boys play in big games like this one. Whichever it was, Burns was basically given a free pass to do whatever he wanted.
It’s brilliant, really. If you know the officials aren’t going to enforce the rules, then why wouldn’t you break them at every opportunity? If the league has a tacit understanding that teams that win the Cup have to earn it by emerging from the ice black and blue, then you might as well exploit that for all it’s worth. No reason to believe Burns won’t come out and do the same in Game 6 and there’s even less reason to think that Wes McCauley and Kelly Sutherland, the two likely referees for Game 6, won’t have a bulge in their throats from swallowing their whistles.
“Just kind of developed,” Burns said of his temperament in Game 5. “The game was pretty tight. I think it’s a pretty hard-checking, tight game. Yeah, just normal game.”
And if the Sharks can get two more “normal games,” they might just have a chance of winning this thing.