The San Jose Sharks face a daunting reality heading into Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night (8:00 ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS). They simply cannot afford to lose.
Falling into an 0-2 hole might not be fatal, but it would be the next closest thing. As a franchise, they've dropped the first two games of a series 10 times. And they've been eliminated in every single instance.
And they're not alone. In the history of the Cup final, the team that lost the first two games went on to lose the series 44 of 49 times. So this is a big one for the Sharks.
Here are five keys to heading back to San Jose with the series evened up.
Paging the top guns
It wasn't just that the Pittsburgh Penguins were so much faster in the early going of Game 1. It's that the Sharks appeared overwhelmed by the moment. They were outshot, 15-4, in the first period and, tellingly, not one of those chances came off the stick of one of their top-six forwards. If not for a solid effort by goaltender Martin Jones, they could have dug themselves a deficit much worse than 2–0 in that opening frame.
By the time it was over, players like Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Brent Burns had their touches, but still failed to generate much pressure in Pittsburgh's end. "We weren't happy with the number of shots," coach Peter DeBoer said on Tuesday. "We weren't happy with the quality of shots. We weren't happy with the guys who didn't get enough shots. We didn't do enough to win the game. We've got to fix that."
So it's not just a matter of getting more shots. It's the right guys getting more shots. If they can get the puck on the stick of Burns and Pavelski in particular, they've taken a step in the right direction.
Quicker decisions with the puck
If the first three rounds didn't make Pittsburgh's plan clear, then Game 1 certainly did. The Pens want to get pucks deep and beat defenders on the turn. If they can't do that, they hound the puck carrier to force turnovers. Either way, they then throw everything at the net. It's a strategy that knocked the Sharks completely off balance: Pittsburgh had 41 shots on goal, marking just the second time all season, regular and playoffs, that the Sharks allowed as many as 40 in regulation. That doesn't just put too much pressure on Jones. It takes the game out of San Jose's hands.
San Jose's first move is keeping Pittsburgh's attackers in front of them. Then, make faster decisions with the puck.
The Pens clearly had a speed advantage in Game 1, but it wasn't entirely generated by faster feet. If the Sharks move the puck more quickly in transition, they not only tilt the pace their way, they reduce the number of turnovers and make life easier on Jones.
Stay in control
The Pens limited the Sharks to just six high-quality scoring chances in the opener while generating 13 of their own. San Jose has to flip that narrative.
The trick is finding a way to generate that quality time in front of Pens keep Matt Murray. That starts with possession. It won't be as simple as getting pucks deep. Pittsburgh's defense was too quick and won too many of the loose-puck battles in Game 1. That means San Jose has to create more controlled zone entries, with an eye on feed attackers like Pavelski as they drive through the middle towards the net.
Shake up the lines
The Sharks didn't get much out of their bottom two lines in Game 1 (just five shots and a crushing loss in the possession battle). That has to change. DeBoer has the option to insert Matt Nieto into the lineup, and hinted that he might do just that. The speedy winger hasn't played since May 9 (upper-body injury), but would seem like a natural counter to Pittsburgh's speed advantage. If he's in, DeBoer can shake up his mix and set the stage for more effective minutes for those units.
Draw on experience
It's one thing to knock the Sharks down. It's another thing entirely to keep them there. Through the first three rounds of the postseason, the Sharks have lost six games. They followed up five of them with wins. That speaks to their ability to learn from their mistakes and make the appropriate adjustments—the keys to getting this series back on even footing.
San Jose dropped a similarly frustrating 2–1 road decision to the Blues in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, but rebounded thanks to a solid performance from their fourth line, two goals from Burns, some excellent special teams play (including six for six on the penalty kill) and a 26-save shutout from Jones. As far as formulas go, that's not a bad one to follow tonight.