The Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves in a dangerous situation coming into Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final on Sunday (8:00 ET; NBC, CBC, TVAS).
By winning three of the first four contests against the San Jose Sharks, the Pens gave themselves three chances to clinch their fourth title in franchise history. Even after dropping a 4-2 decision in Game 5 back in Pittsburgh they still have two of them. The odds are clearly in their favor. But they may also have missed their best chance to finish off the Sharks.
Despite being the better team throughout the series, the Pens come into Game 6 having lost two of the past three. They're playing on the road, which means they won't have the right of last change. And they're up against Martin Jones, a goalie who just set a franchise record for saves in a regulation playoff game on Thursday night.
Most troubling, they're up against a Sharks team that knows it is one win away from the coin flip that is Game 7.
"We're playing a very good opponent," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said on Saturday. "We know this is the most difficult win to get. Our players are well aware of the expectations and the heightened intensity that we need to have in order to get this next win."
It'll take more than situational awareness though to knock off the Sharks. Here are the keys for the Pens:
Stay the course
Although they failed to clinch in Game 5, the Penguins dictated play for vast stretches of the contest. They more than doubled the Sharks in both shots on net (46-21), and shot attempts (76-36).
Most nights, that's good enough to seal the deal. Deliver another effort like that and they're washing champagne out of their clothes on Monday morning.
"We really liked a lot of our game," Sullivan said. "We just have to continue to try to play the game the right way, play to our strengths, bring the same energy and same conviction. I think that type of hockey gives our team the best chance to win."
Get bodies to the net
Give the Penguins credit. Despite dressing the the hockey equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters, there's nothing cute about their game. They keep their attack simple, throwing pucks to the net from anywhere on the ice, every chance they get.
It's been a winning strategy for more than two months now. But with Jones starting to feel it, they need to improve their odds by getting bodies to the net ahead of the shot, not just after it.
The Pens scored twice in Game 5 and it's no coincidence that both goals were the product of fortuitous bounces. Malkin's cross-crease pass attempt on the power play banked in off the leg of San Jose defender Justin Braun. Just 22 seconds later, a relatively harmless wrister by Nick Bonino slipped by Jones after careening off the body of Carl Hagelin.
A spare-to-fair NHL goalie will stop everything he sees. A great one will get a few that he doesn't. But a hot one, like Jones? The puck just seems to find him. The best way to mess with his mojo is traffic, and plenty of it.
Force the Sharks to play higher in the zone
Why did San Jose's offense finally click in Game 5? Opportunistic shooting for one. The Sharks didn't get many chances, but they capitalized on three of their best.
Not much the Pens, as a team, can do about that. But what they can do is take away the space that helped the Sharks establish their offensive identity for the first time in the series and led directly to their opening tally.
San Jose is most efficient when it gets control of the puck below Pittsburgh's goal line. When that happens, their bigger bodies and clever playmakers can create chances, like the one that led to Brent Burns's icebreaker.
The Pens need to counter as they have through most of the series--by beating the Sharks to their own dump-ins and forcing them to try to carry the puck into the zone. San Jose will get its chances, but the fewer they get off the cycle, the less effective they'll be.
Trust in Matt Murray
The rookie goalie wasn't particularly sharp in Game 5, allowing two soft goals that essentially cost the Pens the game. But his track record in situations like the one he faces tonight speaks for itself. Murray is 5-0 with a 1.75 goals-against average and .933 in games following a loss in the playoffs.
Maybe he's due for a loss after a run like that. But Murray's mental makeup suggests that he's up for the challenge.
"He knows he's a good goalie," Sullivan said. "He has shown a maturity level beyond his years in a lot of ways. [He has the] ability to deal with any of the adversity that he faces along the way. If one goes in that he thinks he should have had, he has the ability to stay in the moment, [and] try to make the next save. He's a real competitor."
He showed that on Thursday, shutting down the Sharks for 40-plus minutes after allowing Melker Karlsson's late-first period goal. He energized his teammates with his poised, confident play. He can do it again.