By Steve Silverman
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The Pittsburgh Penguins have two one-goal victories in the Stanley Cup Final against the San Jose Sharks, and one can easily come to the conclusion that since the first two games were played in Pittsburgh, the tide will turn as the series moves to San Jose for games 3 and 4.
That conclusion would be wrong.
After Wednesday night’s 2-1 overtime victory that came on the heels of their 3-2 win in the opener, the Penguins are in charge of this series. The Sharks were lucky to keep both games as close as they were, and the Penguins were the better team in both games.
Head coach Mike Sullivan’s team got the payoff they needed when Conor Sheary scored on a scintillating shot to the top corner in overtime. Sidney Crosby won a faceoff, and Kris Letang made a perfect pass that fooled the San Jose defense.
Crosby got the edge on the draw and sent the puck back to Letang quickly at the left point. As he wound up to shoot, the Sharks’ defense settled into its lanes to keep the defenseman’s shot from getting through to goalie Martin Jones.
This was clearly a play the Penguins had worked on in practice. Letang realized there was little chance his shot would make it through to the net, and he saw that Sheary had a better angle. He slipped a pass to the rookie forward, and he corralled it and whistled it into the net at the 2:35 mark of overtime. Jones was screened on the play by Patric Hornqvist and never really had a chance at stopping the shot.
The Sharks sped off the ice, as losing teams tend to do after an overtime goal has been scored against them. San Jose has had a wonderful run in the postseason up to this point, but it has dropped all four overtime games it has played in.
The overtime record may be just one of those things, and if the next game goes past the 60-minute mark, the Sharks could find a way. These things tend to even out — but not always.
The Islanders’ championship run from 1980 through 1983 was punctuated by a string of overtime victories, the most notable of which was Bobby Nystrom’s famous deflection of a perfect pass from John Tonelli that defeated the Flyers for their first championship.
The 1993 Montreal Canadiens dropped the first overtime game they played in the first round against the dear, departed Quebec Nordiques. The Habs followed that up by winning 10 straight games that went past regulation, and they clearly had more overtime magic than any team before or since.
But the Sharks will not get a win the next time out just because they are returning home or because it’s their time to win an overtime game. They have been outshot 71-48 in the first two games of the series, and their puck possession game has been torn asunder by Pittsburgh’s speedy forechecking game.
Every time the Sharks start to break out of their own zone, the Penguins have been all over them and have prevented them from taking the puck through the neutral zone with speed and then setting up prime scoring opportunities against Matt Murray.
Instead of attacking with control, the Sharks have been forced to throw the puck into the Pittsburgh zone, and they have not been able to retrieve it well enough to create prime scoring chances.
Sullivan explained why it’s so tough to play against his team.
“It’s tiring,” Sullivan said. “It wears on people. I’ve seen that throughout the course of this playoffs with some of our opponents. I think that’s one of the strengths of our group. When we establish the puck-pursuit game like we have, it makes it hard on our opponents. We become a much more difficult team to play against.”
So the Sharks have quite a bit of work to do if they are going to get back into this series. Head coach Peter DeBoer will have the last change when the series resumes at the “Shark Tank” on Saturday night.
If he can figure out the most favorable matchups, he should be able to give his team more of an advantage than it had on the road. The problem is that the Penguins appeared to be the quicker team up and down the lineup, and it may be difficult to find the situations that his team can win consistently.
The Sharks certainly have the talent to play better than they have, and they need their big three of Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns and Logan Couture to start coming through.
Couture had an assist on Justin Braun’s game-tying goal late in the third period, but he had just one shot on goal. Pavelski had one shot on net, while Burns had four. All three need to step it up at home.
This can still be a long series that turns into a classic. However, the Sharks have to make major improvements for that to happen, or else the Penguins will be the team waltzing around the ice with the Stanley Cup after four or five games.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy