Immediately after his Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final, captain Sidney Crosby was asked for his gut reaction on facing the San Jose Sharks for the Stanley Cup.
“It’s going to be fast hockey,” he smiled. “From what I’ve watched, it’s two teams that want to play the exact same way. They want to get their D involved. Their power play is really dangerous, so we’ll have to find a way to stay out of the box.
“Whoever gets to their game the most often and the best is going to win. It’s going to be quite the series.”
Monday night, after Game 1 played out, Crosby’s words looked prescient – specifically, that this is going to be quite a Stanley Cup Final.
The two teams faced off with blazing speed – on a breakaway for one of the speediest in the game, Penguins winger Carl Hagelin, Sharks defenseman Brent Burns negated the chance by hustling to catch up and lifting Hagelin’s stick to strip him of the puck.
They matched big moments from talented, young offensive players, with Pittsburgh’s Bryan Rust (24) and Conor Sheary (23) and San Jose’s Tomas Hertl (22), respectively, contributing the game’s first three goals.
Pittsburgh’s fast, effective penalty kill lined up against San Jose’s lethal power play, allowing one goal with just 12 seconds remaining in the penalty, then killing off a big one while clinging to a one-goal lead in the final two minutes of the contest.
And in the end, to use Crosby’s words, the Penguins got to their game the most often and the best, and held on for a 3-2 win to move one step closer to their Stanley Cup aspirations.
Pittsburgh dominated the first and third periods, dictating the pace of the game and outshooting the Sharks 15-4 and 18-9 in those frames.
“I think we did a really good job of not trying to feel the game out too early,” Crosby said. “Two teams that haven’t seen each other in a while, I think there’s always nerves there. We did a good job of just playing and trying to get to our game, and it gave us a big boost.”
“The first period was a credit to them,” said Sharks head coach Pete DeBoer. “They came out and were moving like you would expect if you’re playing at home in the first game of the Stanley Cup Final. We stood around and watched a little bit; didn’t get up to speed, didn’t get up to pace.”
The second, with a 13-8 Sharks advantage, was a different story, and when San Jose got both of its goals.
“I think part of it’s just human nature,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “You have to give the opponent credit; they’re going to push, too, and raise their game and their intensity. But I also think sometimes it starts with our decisions with the puck. I thought early in the second period we turned the puck over a few times; we had opportunities to put pucks behind them and we chose to try to play in front of them. When we’re at our best, we make the right decisions in the neutral zone.”
But, tied at 2-2 going into the third, the Penguins regrouped.
“I thought we came back and got our legs under us and put pucks where we needed to. I thought we were smarter with the puck,” said forward Matt Cullen. “The second in general, they pushed back pretty hard, but we didn’t manage pucks the way we needed to.”
“Our players are well aware of how we have to play in order to play to our strengths and our identity,” Sullivan said. “Speed is always a part of it, where we put our opponents under pressure, whether we have or don’t have the puck.”
With 2:33 remaining, that pressure on the forecheck resulted in the Penguins’ Carl Hagelin and Kris Letang winning a puck battle in the corner. Letang got it out to center Nick Bonino in the slot, who fired a quick shot over the stick of Sharks goaltender Martin Jones that ended up becoming the game-winning goal.
“Tanger put it right on my stick,” Bonino said. “It wasn’t my hardest shot by any means, but I just found a way to flip it over him.”
“When you get down to anywhere under five minutes in a game, you feel like the next goal wins,” Cullen said. “It felt like it was to that point already.”
It wasn’t quite over. A hooking penalty to Penguins defenseman Ben Lovejoy with 2:09 remaining put the Sharks on the power play for essentially the remainder of the game. But the Pittsburgh penalty kill held San Jose – converting at nearly a 30 percent clip with the man-advantage this postseason – without a single shot.
“It was cool to be out there,” said winger Carl Hagelin. “A lot of energy in the building, and it was super loud. Any time you can kill off a penalty that late, it’s a really good feeling. And I think we did a good job there of not giving them any shots. We’ve got to keep doing that.”
On a night where they could take a lot of positives from the game, the Penguins faced one big negative when Rust had to leave the ice following a late second-period hit from Patrick Marleau. The open-ice hit clipped Rust’s head; he came back for one shift but then left the game for good.
“He’s day-to-day with an upper-body injury,” Sullivan said. “It’s a blindside hit to the head; I’m sure the league will look at it.”
Whether Rust will be able to return for Wednesday’s Game 2 is uncertain. What is certain is that hockey fans can look forward to more of the same – two fast, puck-possession teams trying to get the upper hand for more of the game’s 60 minutes.
“They played their game for longer stretches than we did tonight; that’s what happens,” DeBoer said. “You don’t deserve to win when you don’t outplay the other team. They’re a fast team but, if we play our game and execute the way we can, we can play with them. There’s nothing that I saw tonight that I’m going out of here thinking that we can’t compete and play much better on our end.
“They’re a good team, but part of it is us fixing our execution, and we’ve been pretty good about that throughout the playoff trail here.”
The Penguins, once again, will be looking to dictate the terms.
“We didn’t want to go into this series with a wait-and-see approach,” Sullivan said. “We didn’t want to go through a feeling-out process. When I use the term ‘fearless,’ that encompasses a lot of things. Most specifically, let’s not get overwhelmed by the circumstance. Let’s not have any sort of anxiety when we go out there because the stakes are high.
“Let’s embrace the moment, let’s challenge each other to be our best, and let’s have fun with this. And I thought our guys did that tonight.”