By Steve Silverman
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Suddenly, some real drama has been infused into the Stanley Cup Final.
The San Jose Sharks finally found a way to get an early lead and though they quickly lost that advantage they managed to change the tenor of their series with the Penguins, winning Game 5 in Pittsburgh, 4-2 on Thursday night.
Melker Karlsson scored what proved to be the game-winner for the Sharks late in the first period, but he was not the hero. It was all about Martin Jones in goal, as he played perhaps the best game he has ever played, given the circumstances.
It didn’t start out that way, however, as the Sharks let a two-goal lead get away. First the Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin scored when his weak-side pass to Sidney Crosby deflected off Justin Braun and past Jones for a power-play goal. Twenty-two seconds later, former Ranger Carl Hagelin evened things when Nick Bonino’s shot deflected off of him and past Jones.
Think of the pressure that Jones faced at that moment, which came at the 5:06 mark of the first period. The Sharks had finally gotten themselves a nice lead and it disappeared in the blink of an eye.
The Penguins had all the momentum and their fans at the Consol Energy Center were in full throat. Jones certainly had to have some doubt, even though both goals came on deflections that he couldn’t have stopped.
The Sharks appeared to be the slower team throughout the rest of the period, and the Penguins were zipping all over the San Jose zone. They had chance after chance, but Jones somehow steadied himself and put up a wall.
The gods may have been with the Sharks, as the Penguins were victimized by a number of posts. Chris Kunitz rang a power-play attempt off the post in the first period and Phil Kessel fired one of his patented wrist shots that rang off both posts.
While that was good fortune, Jones was on top of his game. Good thing, too, because the Penguins ended up with a huge shot advantage, 46-22.
But after Karlsson’s go-ahead goal in the first period, the Sharks showed just enough backbone to make the lead stand up.
Think about what the Penguins will have to go through from this point forward. Instead of clinching the Stanley Cup at home in what would have been a very comfortable five-game triumph, they now have to fly cross-country and wait until Sunday night to play at the Shark Tank, also know as the SAP Center.
While the Penguins played a near-perfect game in winning there Monday night, the San Jose fans will make life miserable for them. Doubt will creep in.
They know that the Sharks are certainly capable of winning a game at home and it will take a monumental effort to win the Stanley Cup in Game 6 on the road. Perhaps it would take Pittsburgh’s best game of the season to win the championship on Sunday.
The Penguins had the opportunity to win the Cup in their home city. They will have that chance again if this thing gets to a seventh game, which would be played in Pittsburgh next Wednesday.
The wait between games can be interminable when a team is coming off a loss. Through the first three rounds, teams were basically playing every other day. In the championship round, the teams had three days between Games 4 and 5, and they will have the same wait between Games 5 and 6, and, potentially, 6 and 7.
Even though the Penguins have been beaten twice in this series, they have looked like the superior team. They have been faster and more decisive with the puck.
But what about their mental makeup? They just blew a chance to join Bill Mazeroski and the 1960 Pirates as the last home team to win a championship in Pittsburgh. Are they strong enough to overcome this adversity without it eating away at their psyche?
Head coach Mike Sullivan has done a fantastic job to this point. He has to do his best work over the next few days to get his team prepared to play Game 6. If the Penguins lose that game, he will have to do an even better job to get them ready for Game 7.
This has become a series with quite a bit of intrigue, and suddenly the pressure is on the Penguins.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy