PITTSBURGH — Teeth bared and head shaking, Logan Couture made little attempt to hide the festering frustration. As the first night of June neared its end, the San Jose Sharks were still digesting the knockout blow that slugged them 155 seconds into overtime—a perfect plan, a rookie’s one-footed wrister, a 2-0 hole heading back home. “We need to be a lot better,” Couture said. “We know that if we play this way, we’re not going to win games.”
Down the hallway at Consol Energy Center, the Pittsburgh Penguins reveled in their 2–1 triumph. Before beating Joel Ward clean on an offensive-zone face-off, Sidney Crosby had positioned linemate Conor Sheary along the half-wall, which Sheary later said was a new maneuver. Then Crosby told defenseman Kris Letang to stay patient, to pass up a potential one-timer at the blue line and instead wait for Sheary to loop into the slot. When the puck slid back to him, Letang obliged. Left open above the hashmarks, Sheary fired into traffic and, before he even realized the puck had hit the net, became the fifth rookie ever and first since 1986 with a sudden-death winner in the Stanley Cup Final. “To find a way, it definitely feels good,” Crosby said. “To see guys get rewarded, and everyone get rewarded for their hard work, yeah, it’s nice to see.”
Inside the visiting locker room, though, the Sharks faced a grim reality. By losing two straight for only the second time this postseason, by falling in overtime for the fourth time in four tries, by again laboring against Pittsburgh’s speed, they will fly west on Thursday still seeking answers. “I think we’ll hold off on the funeral. We’ve got a lot of hockey left to play,” coach Pete DeBoer said, and though there indeed remains enough time to reverse early trends, it’s being shaved thin.
“We’ve gone through a lot in these playoffs,” said defenseman Justin Braun, who scored San Jose’s tying goal with 4:05 left in the third period. “You’ve got to lean on past stuff, just push forward, forget about these two games and move forward.”
Braun certainly held on to more optimism than Couture, whose gripes included alleging that Crosby “cheats” on face-offs and “gets away with it because he’s Sidney Crosby,” but certain matters still troubled him. The Sharks weren’t as sluggish in the first period as they were in Game 1, but they still labored to sustain pressure against Pittsburgh, cycling around the rims just fine but finding the middle of the ice too clogged to access. Through two periods, just 11 shots reached Penguins goaltender Matt Murray, equal to Pittsburgh’s offensive output in the first frame alone. “They just don’t stop coming,” Braun said. “They have good pressure. They have good sticks. The amount of pucks they knock down compared to teams we’ve played in the past is pretty amazing. We’ve got to make harder plays, stronger plays and get around that.”
In Couture’s mind, sloppiness continued to gouge the Sharks. “We turned the puck over a ton, again,” he said. “I don't know what the total was again, but a lot of turnovers. I don't know if it’s their pressure or us just making bad plays. We can’t be turning the puck over like we are.” The seeds of Phil Kessel’s team-leading 10th postseason goal, for instance, were planted by San Jose defenseman Roman Polak’s defensive-zone giveaway and watered when Carl Hagelin easily swiped the puck from Brenden Dillon.
“I think our team has the ability to wear teams down with our puck pursuit game and forcing defensemen to turn and go back for pucks,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “It’s tiring. It wears on people. I’ve seen that throughout the course of these playoffs with some of our opponents, and I think that’s one of the strengths of our group, is that when we establish the puck pursuit game like we have, it makes it hard on our opponents. We become a much more difficult team to play against.”
According to WhoWins.com, home teams that take 2-0 series leads in the Cup final eventually hoist the grail 91.9% of the time, even though the other side holds a 20-17 record in Game 3s. If they desired, the Sharks could take solace in a strong third-period push capped by Braun’s goal, snapped from 51 feet away into heavy net-front screens, and another strong performance from their top line of Tomas Hertl, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, who each finished with even-strength shot differentials of +7 or better. They also hit two posts and one crossbar, and DeBoer’s wise flip-flop of forwards Ward and Patrick Marleau paid dividends.
“There's going to be ebbs and flows,” DeBoer said. “They're going to take it over for some periods. We're going to take it over for some periods. I thought we were better tonight. But we have to find a way to create some more 5-on-5 offense.
“This was a game that went back and forth. They're at home. They carried the play for parts. We carried it for parts. We've got to go back home now and get back in the series."