The Pittsburgh Penguins are one win away from their first Stanley Cup title since the 2008-09 season, and they have a rookie goaltender to thank.
Matt Murray was brilliant between the posts and saved all but one of the San Jose Sharks' 24 shots at the SAP Center during Pittsburgh's 3-1 victory in Monday's Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final. The Penguins now lead the series 3-1 and will have the chance to close it out on home ice Thursday:
San Jose actually outshot Pittsburgh (24-20) and tallied more hits (46-31) and faceoff wins (37-30), but Murray proved to be the difference. NHL on NBC reacted to the incredible effort from the goaltender:
Ian Cole, Evgeni Malkin and Eric Fehr all scored for the Penguins, while Melker Karlsson netted the only goal for the Sharks during the defeat.
Pittsburgh scored the first goal in each of the first three games, and that pattern didn't change Monday. Cole found the back of the net a mere 7:36 into the first period. Here's the highlight, via the Penguins:
It was Cole's first playoff goal of his career in 29 games, per NHL Public Relations, and Phil Kessel and Malkin received credit for the assists. Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star praised the playmaking that led to the open shot and said, "Kessel's so good he can create an Ian Cole goal."
The defenses and goaltenders settled in after the first goal, and both teams killed power plays throughout the opening period. Pittsburgh took the 1-0 advantage into the intermission. Kevin Kurz of CSNBayArea.com noted the early goal was particularly cruel for the Sharks, who registered eight shots to Pittsburgh's six and 22 hits to Pittsburgh's 16 in the first 20 minutes:
One thing San Jose had going for it was the fact that it was perfect against Pittsburgh's power play throughout the series, but that ended within the first three minutes of the second period. Kessel notched another assist when he found Malkin for a goal to make it 2-0. The Penguins provided the video:
It was Malkin's first goal of the series. Sam Vecenie of CBS Sports suggested he "deserves a much more spectacular goal than that one" because he played so well to that point Monday after struggling in the first three games against the Sharks.
With the 2-0 lead, Pittsburgh's defense and Murray continued to turn away every opportunity for San Jose. Seth Rorabaugh of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette praised the defense's work without Trevor Daley, who was out with a broken ankle:
The Sharks did receive a late power-play opportunity in the second, but the Penguins defense held them to a lone shot in the two-minute span, per Curtis Pashelka of the Bay Area News Group. Al Muir of Sports Illustrated said the home team "completely [wasted]" the chance. It was Pittsburgh's defense that dictated the tone of the game as it took the 2-0 lead into the second intermission.
Patrick Marleau had a golden opportunity to break the Penguins' momentum early in the third when he broke free all alone toward the net, but Murray stifled his attempt with another impressive save. Jamie Hersch of NHL Network said, "Stop me if you've heard this before: [Murray] has been excellent tonight," while NHL on NBC shared the glove stop:
The breakaway spearheaded a desperate rush from the Sharks, and they finally got on the board when Karlsson scored with less than 12 minutes left. Here's the video courtesy of San Jose:
The constant pressure from the Sharks had Pittsburgh's defense scrambling, and Vecenie realized Murray was "so concerned about going high glove...that he [was] leaving the space below the glove open" after the goal. However, the rookie course-corrected in the face of the attack and maintained that narrow 2-1 lead despite a flurry of shots in the middle of the third.
Pittsburgh finally had a chance to counter with less than three minutes left, but Jones saved a point-blank shot from Matt Cullen to keep it at 2-1. Any momentum from that save quickly came to an end, though, when Fehr scored 15 seconds later to give the Penguins the critical 3-1 lead and provide Murray with some breathing room.
The Sharks summarized the quick change of momentum after they dominated much of the third period:
San Jose had a few more chances in the offensive zone in the final two minutes, but Murray was up to the task every time and led his team to the 3-1 win.
Game 5 is Thursday in Pittsburgh at Consol Energy Center. Pittsburgh already won the first two games in this series at home and finished with an impressive 26-11-4 record there during the regular season.
According to NHL Public Relations, teams up 3-1 in the Stanley Cup Final since 1939 are a daunting 31-1, which means the Sharks have an uphill battle ahead of them.
That doesn't mean this series is over, as the Sharks were actually better on the road than at home this season. The Western Conference champions were a mere 18-20-3 at home but 28-10-3 in enemy territory, which marked the most road wins in the NHL during the 2015-16 campaign.
San Jose will have to take the one-game-at-a-time approach if it hopes to climb back into this series. If it takes that sparkling road record to Pittsburgh and wins Game 5, it will be a single home victory away from forcing a decisive Game 7.
Otherwise, the Penguins will be the champions.
Murray discussed his game-changing performance after the win, per Pens Inside Scoop: “My mindset is to stay in the moment. Focus on present. Take [one] shot at a time. [It is] working for me. [I'm] trying to have fun [through] it all.”
Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan recognized Kessel’s ability to control the game on the offensive side, per the Penguins: “He's committed. He passes the puck as well as he can score. He is playing the game the right way.”
As for San Jose, head coach Peter DeBoer implied his team needs to change its early approach, per Rorabaugh: “We've been chasing the game by not scoring first the whole series.”
San Jose center Nick Spaling wasn’t ready to give up just yet, per the Sharks: “We're still excited to play the next game. We're down, but it's a long way forward. You have to win four games.”