There’s a set of numbers that suggest Joe Pavelski is enjoying a whale of a series in the Stanley Cup Final. He leads San Jose with 14 scoring chances. He’s been on the ice for 19 more shot attempts than the Sharks have allowed at even strength. And he’s killing it in the faceoff circle, winning 61% of his draws. But through four games, Pavelski is still looking for his first point of the series.
Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Brent Burns have also played well, giving the Sharks a clear edge in possession when they’ve been on the ice. But the score sheet shows they’ve combined for just six assists in the Final.
Goals are hard to come by in this series for both teams. “I think it’s the hardest hockey that I’ve witnessed in this league,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “It seems like both teams have to fight for every inch out there. That’s just the type of hockey that it’s become.”
But it’s been especially hard for San Jose’s stars. The Sharks have seven goals so far in this series. All have come from secondary options: Justin Braun (two), Patrick Marleau, Joel Ward, Tomas Hertl, Melker Karlsson and Joonas Donskoi.
The big guns have been silenced due to the defensive commitment of the Penguins as a team. But especially the work of their six-man D corps.
It’s not a particularly noteworthy group. Outside of Norris candidate Kris Letang, and with Trevor Daley on IR, the Pens ice a collection of kids and recycled parts. Ben Lovejoy is on his second tour with the team. Brian Dumoulin and Ian Cole were part-timers before being acquired via trade. Justin Schultz was rescued from the Oilers’ scrap heap. And 21-year-old Olli Maatta still needs the help of a map on occasion to find his own backside.
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On paper, it doesn’t look like much. And yet, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And it’s been the key to Pittsburgh’s 3–1 series lead.
“It’s a team defense, not necessarily a group of individuals out there,” Sullivan said. “That’s what’s helped each player throughout the course of this postseason. They trust one another. They rely on one another. They support one another. Because of that, I think they bring out the best in each other.”
But mostly what they do is play within their limitations. They look to make the simple play every time in order to reduce the risk of turnovers.
“They just get the puck out of their own end as quickly as possible up to their forwards,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer said. “There's nothing fancy about it. They’re not looking to make cute plays. They’re just looking to get it out of their own zone as quickly as possible.”
That approach has severely limited the amount of time San Jose’s stars have spent camped in the Pittsburgh end. And on the rare occasions that the Sharks do get set up, there’s a team-wide commitment to shot blocking that’s left the men in teal turning an angry shade of red.
“I can tell you their effort, the things that they’ve done that have made them successful through the first three rounds of the playoffs haven’t changed going into this round,” DeBoer said of his top players. “You have to give Pittsburgh some credit for the job they’ve done on them.”
There were some encouraging signs for the Sharks in Game 4, especially during that third-period push that saw them pull to within one on Karlsson’s goal. Pavelski and Couture both had excellent chances. Burns and Thornton found some space to create. And they generated a series of solid chances.
But in the end, the Pens defense had the answer. Just as they have throughout a series in which they’ve never trailed.
“We’ve certainly challenged these guys each and every day to be at their best,” Sullivan said. “What I like about this group, and what I’ve really grown to admire about this group, is how close-knit they’ve become through this journey."
Shut down San Jose’s top scorers one more time and that journey will carry them into history.