PITTSBURGH – Penguins forward Nick Bonino stood in place with both hands raised high, spinning slowly like a holiday display in a department store window, shining bright for everyone to see. The unclaimed stick of San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns lay just outside the blue paint, nestled underneath the pads of his goaltender Martin Jones, and nearby Paul Martin dropped to one knee in defeat. Into the celebration from the far corner charged Kris Letang, the Pittsburgh defenseman who had no business being that deep, at least not this late into the third period of a tie game. And yet here was the opener of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, decided by a bold rush, a smart read, and a chip shot by the center with the Civil War chinstrap.
“It was a flipper or something like that,” Letang said. “I’m just glad he put that in.”
Two minutes and 33 seconds later, after the Penguins snuffed defenseman Ben Lovejoy’s hooking minor and survived a two-man disadvantage when Jones fled to the bench, Consol Energy Center was a roaring frenzy as the horn blared on Pittsburgh's 3–2 victory, the first by an Eastern Conference team in a Stanley Cup Final Game 1 since 2006. That was the year the Carolina Hurricanes, helmed by current Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, began the final push to the first Cup in their franchise history. On Tuesday night, with Rutherford watching his new team, several of his shrewd moves pushed Pittsburgh to a 1-0 series lead.
The third-period goal by Bonino, acquired from Vancouver last July, was merely the climax. The backhanded feed that sprung Letang at the offensive blue line came via speedster Carl Hagelin, who Rutherford re-imported to the Metropolitan Division from Anaheim at mid-season. In the opening frame, forwards Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary had become the first pair of rookies to open the Stanley Cup Final scoring since 1924, or roughly when forward Matt Cullen, the grizzled $800,000 summer signee of considerably greater value, was born. Before the game, television cameras captured coach Mike Sullivan, promoted by Rutherford from AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Dec. 12 after Mike Johnston’s firing, instructing his charges to play “fast and fearless.”
“We certainly didn't want to go into this series with a wait-and-see approach,” Sullivan said. “We didn't want to go through a feeling-out process. We wanted to try to go out and dictate the terms right away. That’s when we play our best, when we’re on our toes and we skate. We try to do it in a calculated way.
“When I use the term ‘fearless,’ I think that word encompasses a lot of things," Sullivan continued. "Most specifically is, let’s not get overwhelmed by the circumstance. Let’s not have any sort of anxiety out there because the stakes are high. Let’s embrace the moment. Let’s challenge each other to be our best and let’s have fun with this. I thought our guys did tonight.”
Seven years after their last Cup final appearance, the Penguins jumped on their visitors from the outset, putting 15 shots on goal in the first period to San Jose's four. Standing inside an empty visiting locker room after the game, Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon addressed his team's slow start in its first-ever appearance in the championship round. “Looking around, taking everything in, you don’t know if you want to blame it on that, but it was a lot of firsts today for us,” he said.
The Sharks had basked in the moment since arriving here. Even the cadre of Pittsburgh fans that showered San Jose's bus with boos at the team hotel two days earlier had been received with enthusiasm. “It’s exciting times," Dillon said. "We build off that stuff. Doesn’t matter the amount of Red Bulls or coffee you can drink. You get the national anthem going, you get the jitters.”
Ordinarily smooth through the neutral zone, the Sharks were unable to sustain any semblance of a forecheck and were rendered almost inert by Pittsburgh’s speed. Even before Rust and Sheary scored 62 seconds apart in the first period, the former by following up a rebound and the latter by potting a magical no-look pass from captain Sidney Crosby, San Jose was playing catch-up.
GALLERY: Stanley Cup Final Game 1
“The overall message was just, hey, let’s get back to work,” Dillon said. “We weren’t working in the first period, weren’t using our legs. We almost hoped that maybe they would’ve had some nerves, would’ve turned some pucks over, but here in the final, teams aren’t going to give you goals.”
Much the way the Penguins obliged Sullivan’s pregame request, the Sharks emerged from the first intermission looking like the high-flyers who still lead the postseason with 3.42 goals per game. Three minutes in, Tomas Hertl put San Jose on the board with a nifty stuff-in on the power play. Later, forward Patrick Marleau, until Tuesday the owner of the NHL record for most playoff games without a Cup final appearance, caught goalie Matt Murray on a slow post-to-post recovery and wrapped a rebound around to the far side. Jones, meanwhile, was magnificent while facing 41 shots—more than he had seen in any regulation game this postseason—at least until he dropped onto his knees, squared up to Bonino, and watched the winning puck fly over his shoulder.
“I think our guys have done a good job of recognizing what we have to get better at and getting it fixed,” San Jose coach Pete DeBoer said. “This isn't going to be easy. You don't get to this point and have any easy nights. We know Game 2 is going to be tough. I think we can be a lot better.”
And yet, the Sharks were still right there as the clock wound down, their vaunted power play on the ice and Jones on the bench with Lovejoy in the box. A quick Pittsburgh clear off the face-off burned away some time, soon followed by another clear from Hagelin, a third from Eric Fehr, the rangy bottom-six forward who was signed in free agency last summer, and a fourth from Letang. Aside from Logan Courture’s spin-and-fire wrister from 13 feet that Murray denied, the Sharks did not attempt another shot on goal before two yellow towels fluttered onto the ice, dropping the curtain on a pulse-racing Game 1 that befitted the stage.
“I think that’s how it’s going to be,” Dillon said. “It’s as advertised.”