This is What We Play For

It’s every little kid’s dream, when they’re dodging cars playing street hockey, or skating around a frozen pond with their friends. Winning the Stanley Cup is the ultimate goal, and for many, the only thing that matters. When Eric Fehr scored the Penguins third goal with just over two minutes to play, you could almost feel the air being sucked out of the Shark Tank. For a team that hadn’t scored more than two goals in a game all series, the idea of needing three to win just seemed insurmountable. The Sharks got a win in Game three, and got themselves back into the series, though it never felt like they actually were. Now, on the brink of elimination, their Stanley Cup hopes are beginning to fade.

What’s Going Wrong For San Jose?

Getting through the Western Conference is often seen as the more daunting task, because the teams are notoriously bigger and more physical than in the East. Save for a few games here and there, the Sharks looked like the better team through three rounds, and earned their way to the Cup Final. In fact, their impressive run made them the obvious favorites to win the Cup. How would a smaller Pittsburgh team fare against the rough and tumble Sharks, who also possessed the speed that has made the Pens so successful.

(Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

As it turns out, they’ve fared quite well. They’ve been able to weather the storm of the Sharks attack, and they haven’t seemed out-muscled at any point. What makes the Sharks so deadly is their ability to move the puck and crash the net. Watch one of their powerplays. The way the pass and are able to get pucks through is a thing of beauty. They had the size to match their Western opponents, but they out-skilled them on most nights, and that was the key. But what worked for them before doesn’t seem to be working now. As head coach Peter DeBoer so accurately put it, the Sharks have been chasing the game all series long.

The Penguins have scored first so far in each game, and haven’t trailed other than an overtime loss. No one would have expected that trend, but we can’t call it luck anymore. The Penguins are doing something to the Sharks that the Kings, Predators and Blues all failed to do, and that is to strategize. Mike Sullivan has created a game plan to specifically target the Sharks style of play, mainly by blocking shots and closing off the lanes to the net. The Penguins have been a strong possession team, but even when San Jose has the puck, they can’t get a good look.

How Can the Sharks Counter?

We should all know better than to declare a series over before the fourth game is won. Teams have come back from a 1-3 hole before, though it’s no easy task. The Sharks have to win three games in a row, but even beyond that, the Penguins would have to lose three games in a row. This series has been very close, if you look at the boxscore. That’s why the Sharks should have a measure of confidence. But if you watch the games, (and for the analytics people, if you check the advanced stats), it hasn’t felt that close. It just seems like the Pens are always a step ahead.

Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Sharks need to put more pressure on the Penguins defenceman, because you can get them to turn it over if you’re fast enough. There have been points when the Pens have struggled to get the puck out of their zone, and found themselves hemmed in. If the Sharks can continue to apply that pressure, and if they can score the first goal, it could change the complex of the game. At this point, the Sharks have to put it all out there. The Penguins are going home with a chance to hoist the Cup on home ice, for the first time in their franchise history. (All three previous clinching games were on the road).

It’s Not Over Till it’s Over

You could argue that the Sharks will be the more relaxed team, while the Penguins will be trying to get the job done in front of their home fans. San Jose can take all the excitement out of the building with an early goal. You know they’re going to say all the right things, that they’re taking it one game at a time, that they won’t quit, that they believe in themselves. But I think the Sharks, and the experts who chose them to win, didn’t expect the series to be playing out this way. It’s not just the fact that the Pens are up 3-1, but it’s the fact that they’ve been the better team through a lot of the play.

(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

The Sharks still have time to adjust. They have had an ability all series long to score big goals and give themselves a chance to win. Martin Jones has kept them in it. They know how good their powerplay can be. But relying on special teams may have been a mistake, because there haven’t been a ton of calls for either side. There will be penalties though, at some point, and that’s where the Sharks have the advantage. The Penguins finally scored a powerplay goal last night, but it’s hardly their strong suit. Pittsburgh has also struggled holding onto the lead. They always seem to let the Sharks back into the game.

The Cup won’t be handed out until one team wins four games. The Sharks literally do have to take things one shift at a time. Win those battles, keep the pressure on, don’t give up the neutral zone. Make life difficult on the smaller Penguin players. No team is in the Final by accident. San Jose deserves to be here. They’re in a hole, there’s no question about it. They have to adjust their tactics. You know they’re going to throw everything they can at the Penguins in Game five. The Stanley Cup will be in the building on Thursday night. Whether or not it’s taken out of its case remains to be seen. It’s going to be a fight to end; it has to be, because that’s what we play for.