Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final between the San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins had a very simple story line. If Pittsburgh wins, the series is 3-0 in favor of the Pens and San Jose is pretty much done for. If the Sharks win, it is back to being a competitive series. But in order for San Jose to win, they would need to play their style of hockey, something Pittsburgh had taken from them in the first two games.
A Major Shift
For the first dozen minutes of Game 3, Pittsburgh was very much in charge. They skated circles around the Sharks, forced numerous turnovers and drew the only power play. They were as dominant as their 10-2 lead on the shot counter would indicate. They were as dominant as they had been for most of the first two games of the series.
With eight minutes to go in the opening period, the score stood at 1-1. And then something changed. It was one shift followed by another followed by another. The Sharks spent nearly two consecutive minutes in their offensive zone, throwing constant pressure at Penguins. It came in waves and the Pens looked helpless for one of the few times all series. Among the highlights was when Chris Tierney dumped the much bigger Ben Lovejoy hard to the ice. The Sharks were cycling the puck, playing heavy, winning the races to loose pucks and winning the battles along the walls.
When Pittsburgh finally got the puck down in the Sharks end, it was the Sharks Roman Polak, burned (again) earlier in the game, hammering the Pens Evgeni Malkin in the corner.
For one of the few times in the series, Sharks hockey had taken over the game. The game was being played in the corners, behind the net and along the half-wall. Open ice largely disappeared. When the ice opened up for brief moments, as it did for a Phil Kessel breakaway after an ill-advised pinch by Sharks defenseman Paul Martin, San Jose goalie Martin Jones stood tall. When Sidney Crosby’s line advanced the puck deep into the Sharks zone, San Jose’s stellar defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic was there to battle Crosby behind the Sharks net, both tumbling to the ice.
The bigger, heavier team was playing bigger heavier hockey. When it came to hits after one period, San Jose had registered 20, Pittsburgh only nine. After plenty of early Sharks giveaways, the takeaways started to come. The chances started to come. The drama returned to the series.
In the second period, the Sharks continued to push the play, with great scoring chances from Burns, Couture, Donskoi and Ward among others. The hit count moved to 30-12 favoring San Jose by the end of the second period and the Sharks won the shot counter for the period. But Penguins goalie Matt Murray played his best period of the series and a superb tip by Patric Hornqvist off of a Ben Lovejoy shot got past Martin Jones late in the period. San Jose trailed 2-1. Fort all the good San Jose had done, what mattered most still favored Pittsburgh.
Winning Two Key Moments
It was Sharks captain Joe Pavelski who said, early in the season, that for the Sharks to be successful they would need to win key moments. The Sharks’ first key moment came with five minutes gone in third period. San Jose was awarded a four-minute power play, the result of Nick Bonino’s high stick on Joe Thornton. The 240-second Sharks power play had gone scoreless for 239 seconds when Joel Ward fired what looked to be a relatively harmless shot towards Penguins goalie Matt Murray. It is the sort of shot a goalie is going to save 99% of the time. This was the 1% and the puck somehow slipped through. The game was tied at 2-2.
The rest of the period provided intense, but scoreless-hockey. When the teams headed to the locker room for the break before overtime, the Sharks had played 182:35 minutes of the Stanley Cup Final without having held a lead. It would take another dozen minutes plus few added seconds for that to change.
It was almost exactly 60 game minutes since Tierney had dumped the bigger Ben Lovejoy when the second key moment occured. This time Tierney fought off the bigger Ian Cole along the goal line to the left of Pens goalie Murray. Tierney’s linemate, Joonas Donskoi, then took the puck behind the net, came around the opposite side and fired the puck high on the short side. It beat Murray and for the first time in the 194:53 minutes of this series, the scoreboard showed more goals for San Jose. Game 3 was over, San Jose had their first win in the series.
The Sharks did not dominate the game, but for the first time in the series, they were the better team. The shot counter still favored the Pens 22-10 in the third period and overtime. For the game it favored the Pens 42-26. The quality of the opportunities, though, favored the Sharks. Possession favored the Sharks. As for the heavier hitting team, San Jose finished with 47 hits to the Pens 17.
The series still favors Pittsburgh 2-1 and given how even the teams are now, Pittsburgh has the overall edge. Still, San Jose now has a blueprint for success, at least until Penguins coach Mike Sullivan makes his next adjustments.
This is now very much a series. Game 4 comes on Monday. For both teams, it is their biggest game of the season.
Matt Murray gave up some softer goals in this game. On the flip side, he made a number of stellar stops. Credit where it is due, the Sharks could have easily had a bunch more goals with the high quality scoring chances they had.
I was among those who felt Peter DeBoer might shorten his bench to roll three lines and two defensive pairs. Paul Gackle suggested the same thing. Half of it happened. Fourth line forwards saw their playing time cut back. Tommy Wingels and Dainius Zubrus both played under ten minutes, while Matt Nieto played only a dozen. Every other forward played at least 17 minutes. Third pair defensemen Roman Polak and Brenden Dillon played roughly a quarter of the game, essentially unchanged from their usual playoff ice time allocation.
The Sharks went their first 20 playoff games without an injury to a key player. This ended with the injury to Tomas Hertl, which kept him out of Game 3. San Jose has lost just ten man-games to injury this postseason. The other nine were all with Matt Nieto, who is playing again.
Perhaps because I get to live in a very international world, I prefer to call people by their names as opposed to anglicized versions of them. Joonas Donskoi’s first name is being pronounced Joe-nass in much of the media. The wonderful video of the call from Finland makes it clear, its Yo-nass.
One would think that between basketball’s Golden State Warriors and hockey’s San Jose Sharks playing for championships in their respective sports, the Bay Area would be tapped out for major sporting events this week and next. Hardly. Another sporting event will sell twice as many tickets as the Sharks and Warriors combined. The four games of the Copa America Centenario soccer tourney in Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium (same venue as the Sharks outdoor game in 2015) will sell close to 250,000 tickets.