Sunday, June 12, 2016
On the fence in a desperate Game Five in Pittsburgh, the Sharks successfully staved off elimination, bringing the series back to San Jose to play their last game in front of the faithful fans this season. A win today will force a Game Seven in Pittsburgh, this time with the momentum on the Sharks' side.
Goaltender Martin Jones' brilliant performance (who arguably has played a significant role in keeping the Sharks in the running), coupled with an extremely solid defensive core, kept the Sharks in the lead. Jones made 44 saves in Game Five, some of which were deadly scoring chances that many thought would be goals. While the Penguins lit up Jones with shots, the Sharks' strategy of ensuring quality shots has given them a lower shot count. The Penguins have also been nothing short of amazing with their positioning as to block most of the Sharks' opportunities and to not allow any clear shots towards the net.
While the Penguins currently have the upper hand on the series lead, the Sharks have shown stronger play as a team with each progressive game this series as they learn from the Penguins' method of playing, matching speed with finesse, and blind shots with quality scoring chances. The Sharks had plenty of scoring opportunities in Game Five (i.e. one-on-none on the goalie), but Penguins goaltender Murray found a way each time to keep his team in the running. Converting more of these can tun these close games into more of a runaway. (Remember Game Seven vs. the Predators in Round Two?) Ardent observers of the game understand that while you need to be good to begin with, hockey really comes down to matching up playing styles, and the Sharks' lack of experience with playing a team like the Penguins hurt in the opening of the Stanley Cup Finals.
This undoubtedly has changed in the Sharks' favor as this series has unfolded.
There are several points of consideration I would like to mention that will keep the Sharks fans happy and force a Game Seven. See below:
FIRST TO SCORE
The Sharks absolutely must be the first team to score. While they demonstrated that - twice - in Game Five, it is equally important to not let up and allow the opposition to get two quick ones right back. As the Sharks have shown this series that they have learned the Penguins' style of play to adapt to it (notice how the Penguins do not look as 'fast' as they did in Games One and Two?), they certainly will learn to "shut the gates" if they can throw one or two quick ones during the first period.
ELIMINATE THE PENS' OFFENSE
One notable point about this series is the lack of scoring by each team's best players. Notice the lack of scoring by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin (well, he did get one 'weak' one in Game Five), and Phil Kessel (invisible since Game One)? Thank Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun. While Martin Jones' kudos is rightly earned, the Sharks' defensemen have been extremely hard at work, nullifying the team's most capable offensive producers. (That explains why players like Vladimir Tarasenko from the Blues struggles to put points on the board.)
In addition to this, we must continue to position ourselves well to eliminate any potential scoring chance. We have shown that we can do this, so let us continue on!
GET IN THEIR HEAD
This one is both for the fans and for the players. We can watch the trash talk and videos of Joe Thornton messing with Sidney Crosby, but there is good reason why playing at home gives the home team a distinct advantage. Even more so, players voted the SAP Center as the toughest place to play in the entire league (as evidenced by this video, where the two facilities determined as 'tougher' to play no longer exist). In other words: NO EXCUSES! Time to be loud! Remember that hockey is a fast-paced game, and either team can certainly recover from any goal deficit, so keep the cheers coming!
STAY COOL AND COLLECTED
Sharks hockey, when they are playing well, is like watching some kind of art form. Joe Thornton is arguably one of the best passers - ever - in the NHL, and watching him set up teammates is quite fun to watch. Now that we know Joe Thornton can shoot as well, we are seeing far more scoring from any line he is on. It seems now Thornton is not the only one who can pass well, with the likes of Tomas Hertl, and setting up scorers like Joonas Donskoi and Joel Ward. While it is natural to have the Stanley Cup Final jitters, the Sharks need to relax and play like they can, because when they are indeed "cool and collected," it is quite beautiful to watch; not only what the team can do with the puck, but how the puck beautifully enters the opposing net.
BIG GUNS A-BLAZIN'
We saw Brent Burns score in Game Five (the first time this series) and add on a couple of extra exciting scoring chances. Joe Pavelski, despite getting his only goal on an empty netter, looked quite good as well. The Sharks' prominent offense is waking up, and it does not seem like it will slow down through the rest of the series. If they can keep this all up, a forced Game Seven seems all too within reach.
Along with many other diehard fans, I will be in attendance tonight. It is going to be a fun one!