The Pittsburgh Penguins are one win away from capturing the fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history after a 3–1 victory over the San Jose Sharks in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night.
The Pens now own a commanding 3-1 series lead and have a chance to clinch the title on home ice for the first time on Thursday night.
Evgeni Malkin scored his first goal of the final and assisted on Ian Cole's first-period tally to lead the Penguins' attack.
Malkin's lack of production in the series was an issue leading up to Game 4. The superstar center had been held pointless through the first three games and had just one goal in his previous 16, but he finally broke through in this crucial swing game.
Malkin made a patient play under duress in the neutral zone to set up Cole's goal at 7:36 of the first. The defenseman pinched in from the bluemline and roofed a rebound over a diving Martin Jones for his first goal in 104 games.
It marked the fourth consecutive game in which the Penguins got on the board first.
Malkin then broke his own slump just nine seconds into a second-period man advantage. Typically the point man when the Pens have the power play, he went straight to the left post after Sidney Crosby won the face-off. After fighting off a defender for position, he banged home a hard pass from Phil Kessel to give the Pens a 2–0 lead.
That was the second primary assist of the night for Kessel. Just days after being overlooked for the American entry at the upcoming World Cup, he's now the clear favorite to capture the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Kessel is the only player to reach double digits in both goals (10) and assists (11) so far this spring.
After a dismal second period that saw them generate just four shots, the Sharks finally ramped up their attack in the third. Melker Karlsson buried a falling-down wrister after a frantic stretch of action in the Penguins' end to break up Matt Murray's shutout bid, but that was all the offense the Sharks could generate. Murray robbed Patrick Marleau on a breakaway and denied Joe Pavelski twice on in-close opportunities to preserve Pittsburgh's lead.
Eric Fehr added an insurance goal at 17:58 of the third for the Penguins.
Murray finished the night with 23 saves and is now 5-0 in games after a loss in these playoffs. Jones made 17 stops for the Sharks, who now face the onerous task of winning three games in a row against an opponent that has bettered them in every aspect of play so far.
The Sharks spoke endlessly about the need to grab a lead in Game 4, and they came out of the gate looking to back up their words. They swarmed the Pittsburgh end for the first six-plus minutes, playing with the kind of urgency and focus that had been missing for too much of the first three games. For the first time in the series, they actually outshot the Penguins, 8-6.
If they were ever going to get that opening goal, this was the night.
Except, it wasn't.
While they failed to capitalize on their chances, the Penguins pounced on theirs. Kessel, who is rewriting his biography in this postseason, threw a puck at the net from a bad angle that Jones got a piece of. The rebound went hard to his right, directly onto the stick of Cole, the least likely offensive hero on Pittsburgh's roster. With Jones diving to get back into position, Cole smartly got the puck high, tucking it under the crossbar for the opening tally.
The goal knocked the wind out of the SAP Center crowd, and stunned the Sharks long enough for Malkin to deliver the kill shot later in the second.
Gif of the Night
Several Penguins said they'd be willing to eat a puck if that's what it took to win the Cup. Patric Hornqvist appeared to take that sentiment literally on this poorly executed, but highly effective, block attempt.
Tweet of the Night
A little premature maybe, but right on point.
If you miss the reference, you can catch up here.
Notable Number: 1
The Sharks came into the final averaging better than three goals per game. Against Pittsburgh, they've been held to fewer than two.
How have the Penguins so completely shut down San Jose's attack? Simple. They've silenced their offensive engine, Brent Burns. This was the third game in a row that they kept the colorful defender off the scoresheet, and they did it by limiting him to just a single shot on net.
In Game 3, the Pens frustrated Burns by blocking 12 of his shot attempts. You could see that playing on his mind in Game 4 as he repeatedly looked to pass rather than fire away as usual. When he did pull the trigger, it was usually after some hesitation, buying time for Murray to steel up in response.
With Burns effectively eliminated, the Sharks’ offense was dead in the water.
What It Means
If you buy into history, this series is over. The Penguins are the 33rd team to take a 3-1 lead in the Stanley Cup Final. Of the previous 32, 31 have gone on to win the championship. The lone exception, the 1942 Maple Leafs, give the Sharks some hope, but unless they've got the modern-day equivalent of Don Metz and Hank Goldup ready to step into the lineup and help turn things around, that's a pretty slim thread to grasp.
They won't have Tomas Hertl, either. According to a mid-game report, the first-line winger has a knee injury that will sideline him for the remainder of the postseason, although Sharks coach Peter DeBoer denied that in his postgame remarks.
The big issue for DeBoer though isn't personnel. It's his team's inability to grab a lead, especially early on. The constant playing from behind has weighed on the Sharks, both physically and mentally.
"Yeah, it's tough," the coach said. "I think when you have the lead, you can play differently. You feel a lot more comfortable getting in a four-line rhythm, putting your guys out there, trusting them. There's not that pressure that we have to create a scoring chance or score a goal. We can just manage the game, put our time in.
"We haven't put ourselves in that situation yet. We've got to find an answer for that. I don't know what it is. It hasn't been an issue until this series. But it's been a big issue these [four] games."
It might help if the guys paid to lead this team delivered. San Jose's seven goals this series have been scored by Justin Braun (2), Joonas Donskoi, Patrick Marleau, Joel Ward, Hertl and Karlsson. For them to have any chance at getting this series back to the Shark Tank, they need a Malkin-esque game from Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, or Joe Pavelski. One of them has to find a way.
And while DeBoer is looking for answers, his counterpart seems to have found them all.
Mike Sullivan showed faith in Malkin and was rewarded. He's pushed all the right buttons with Kessel. And he has his entire team focused on playing a smart, disciplined brand of hockey against a high-quality opponent.
"This is the hardest hockey that I've witnessed in all the years I've been associated with this league, as far as how hard both teams have to work for their ice out there," he said. "You've got to work for every inch of ice. Both teams defend extremely hard."
But the Pens have been a bit better every step of the way. And now they're one game away from raising the Cup.