It didn’t take long for the San Jose Sharks to realize that they’re facing an entirely new type of challenge in the Stanley Cup Final.
After impressively dispatching three defensive heavyweights in the Los Angeles Kings, the Nashville Predators and the St. Louis Blues in the opening three rounds, the Sharks were caught off guard by the offensively explosive Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1. The Pens wasted no time engaging their Western Conference opponents, jumping out to a 2-0 lead and a 15-4 advantage in shots after the first period.
San Jose made a close fight out of it, tying the game up in the second, before Pittsburgh’s Nick Bonino eventually broke the deadlock with just 2:33 remaining in the third period to seal a 3-2 victory and a crucial early series lead.
The Penguins, pressing hard right up until Bonino’s winner, had 18 shots in the final frame, and finished with 41 in total.
It was relatively uncharted waters for a Sharks team that has only allowed an average of 25.6 shots per game thus far into the playoffs.
With all due respect to the Kings, Predators and Blues, San Jose has yet to face a team in these playoffs that’s anywhere near as dangerous offensively as the Penguins are. The Pens finished 3rd in the NHL in goals during the regular season, but those numbers are somewhat misleading considering the team shifted into another gear altogether when they fired former coach Mike Johnston and replaced him with Mike Sullivan on December 12th, 2015. Sullivan has cleverly crafted a deadly three-line attack, with a superstar player (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel) leading each line.
The Sharks, to their full credit, have been very impressive on the defensive side of the puck all year. They finished 2nd in the league in terms of fewest shots allowed during the regular season and have effectively used both airtight gap control and smart defensive zone positioning to get them this far in the playoffs. However, San Jose struggled to adjust to Pittsburgh’s blazing speed in Game 1, and will need to manage to do so in a hurry to prevent falling into a major hole early in the series.
The biggest X-factor, though, could be netminder Martin Jones. The Sharks’ 26 year-old goalie was spectacular and kept his team alive on Monday night by making 38 saves, including 13 in the opening period to prevent his squad from going down 3-0. An NHL playoffs rookie, will Jones be able to keep bailing out the Sharks this series if the team in front of him continues to allow such a high volume of shots?
There’s still plenty of potential hockey left to be played, but the series could flash by in an instant for the Sharks if they’re not able to put forth their best defensive effort yet and clamp down against the Pens’ attack.