By Steve Silverman
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The Stanley Cup Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks is the series that proves coaching changes matter.
The Penguins were easy cannon fodder for the Rangers last year in the first round under a nondescript leader named Mike Johnston, a man who had no clue how to get Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the Penguins’ star-power lineup to play anything close to its best.
The Sharks were an even bigger mess a year ago, as they did not even make the playoffs under longtime coach Todd McLellan, whose message had apparently grown stale.
Former Rangers assistant Mike Sullivan has turned around the Penguins, and ex-Devils coach Peter DeBoer has done the same with the Sharks. And it was Sullivan’s Penguins that drew first blood in the series with a 3-2 victory at the Consol Energy Center on Monday night.
The Penguins had set the pace early in the game with their speed and attacking offense, and rookies Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary had given them an early 2-0 lead. The Sharks responded in the middle period, as Tomas Hertl and Patrick Marleau found a way to beat Pittsburgh goalie Matt Miller.
The Penguins dialed up their game in the third period and put plenty of pressure on Martin Jones throughout. While they could not score on the Sharks’ goalie through the first 17 minutes of the final period and with overtime looming, the chances were coming fairly quickly.
One of them resulted from a magical pass that Crosby sent to a streaking Patric Hornqvist. Crosby was skating up the left boards with the puck while Hornqvist was flying up the middle. Crosby threaded the needle, and the puck was on the tape of his recipient’s stick. Hornqvist made the deflection, but Jones got a pad on it and kept the disc out of the net.
However, there was no stopping Nick Bonino with less than three minutes to play. The Penguins had driven the puck deep in the San Jose zone and were trying to dig it out of the corner. They had an advantage because Brent Burns had lost his stick and was unable to help his team out.
Suddenly, Kris Letang gained control, and he spotted Bonino about eight feet in front of the goal and behind defenseman Paul Martin. Letang whistled a hard pass to Bonino, and he was able to make a smooth reception of the pass. He got rid of the puck quickly, and it knuckled past Jones for the game-winning goal.
It was not a hard shot, and he didn’t get all of his stick blade behind it. But he got it up and past Jones, and the Penguins were able to survive and take Game 1.
This appears to be a Stanley Cup Final series that appears to have six or seven games written all over it. The Sharks were outplayed for most of the game, but when they found their legs in the second period, they were able to score a couple of goals and get back in the game quickly.
There is no panic in DeBoer’s locker room, either. The Sharks lost their opening game in the Western Conference finals in similar fashion to the St. Louis Blues. They were undaunted and came back to win Game 2 in impressive fashion before taking the series in six games.
The Penguins have been an impressive team throughout the postseason. After dispatching the Rangers in five games, they upset the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in six games before outlasting the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven. Crosby is on top of his game, Malkin is getting there, and Phil Kessel has been sniping goals like a trained assassin.
But the Sharks may be even better, despite the loss in Game 1. They have a trio in Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Burns that has carried the team to victories over the favored Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators and Blues.
The Sharks have more impressive scoring depth with Joe Thornton, Joel Ward, Hertl and Marleau. They have also found a good leader in DeBoer.
Four years ago, DeBoer piloted the Devils to the Stanley Cup Final, so he knows about getting his team to the championship stage.
The Devils were not good enough to take down the Kings, but don’t think for a second that DeBoer can’t get the most out of his team in the biggest games.
There is an energy running through the Sharks that this team has never shown in past playoffs, and a one-game deficit is not going to hurt them in this series.
Look for a long, thrilling series, and look for the Sharks to hoist the cup for the first time in their history.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy