Sharks vs. Penguins: Keys to Victory in Game 5 of NHL Stanley Cup Final
It's do-or-die time.
According to ESPN, Game 5 will be the first time the Penguins have ever had the chance to win a championship on home ice. The franchise has won three previous Cups since joining the NHL in 1967, beating out the Minnesota North Stars in six games in 1991, the Chicago Blackhawks in four games in 1992 and the Detroit Red Wings in seven games in 2009.
Now trailing the series 3-1 after splitting a pair of games on their home ice, the Sharks are in a must-win situation if they hope to extend the series and force Game 6 back in San Jose on Sunday.
Here are the keys to victory for both teams in Game 5, which will take place on Thursday at 8 p.m. ET in Pittsburgh.
San Jose Sharks: Score That First Goal
In every game of the Final, the Penguins have taken control early by scoring the first goal.
The pattern began at the 12:46 mark of Game 1, when Bryan Rust potted his sixth of the playoffs. In Game 2, Phil Kessel opened the scoring at the 8:20 mark of the second period with his 10th. Pittsburgh lost Game 3 in overtime but jumped out to a 1-0 lead thanks to Ben Lovejoy at 5:29 of the first period, and in Game 4, Ian Cole scored his first of the playoffs at 7:36 of the opening frame.
"We’ve been chasing the game the whole series by not scoring first," said coach Peter DeBoer after Monday’s loss, according to the Canadian Press (via Sportsnet). "We have to find a way to get on the board earlier in the game instead of chasing it all night."
The Sharks have no choice but to deal with the pressure of an elimination game and the matchup challenges that are created on the road. An early lead would provide a massive boost to the team's confidence and would amp up the pressure on the Penguins, who bear the burden of trying to deliver a Stanley Cup moment for their hometown fans.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Keep an Even Keel
As Scott Burnside of ESPN explained:
Grandparents, girlfriends, wives, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, childhood friends, anyone with connections to the Pittsburgh Penguins are arriving en masse with the anticipation -- nay, fervent hope -- that the Stanley Cup will be awarded at the Consol Energy Center on Thursday night and that they will join the celebration.
No pressure, guys.
So far in these playoffs, the Penguins have cruised through their most pressure-packed moments as though they were playing on their childhood-backyard rinks. They won in overtime in Game 6 against the Washington Capitals in the second round, then regrouped to take care of the Tampa Bay Lightning after falling behind 3-2 in the Eastern Conference Final and facing elimination themselves.
"I think we've done a really good job of that this year, especially through the playoffs—after a loss, after a win, just kind of turn the page and get ready for the next one," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby told Burnside after practice on Wednesday. "Having that strong mentality, I think that's probably more important now."
The Penguins have been successful in these playoffs by staying true to their game, never getting too high or too low. They'll need to tap into that mindset one more time if they hope to deliver the dagger that ends the series and the playoffs on Thursday.
San Jose Sharks: Leave It All on the Ice
The San Jose Sharks know firsthand that no team is out of a series until that fourth win is in the books.
Two years ago, San Jose took a 3-0 lead over the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs before losing four straight games and finding themselves on the wrong end of one of the most epic collapses in Stanley Cup history.
After watching a team come back from 3-0, they should be undaunted by the fact that no team has rebounded from a 3-1 deficit to win the Stanley Cup since the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, according to Dave Stubbs of NHL.com.
Focused on the fact that every game in the series has been close, the Sharks are focused on chipping away at the deficit, a bit at a time. "We're still right here," captain Joe Pavelski said after practice on Wednesday, per ESPN's Burnside. "If we can find a way to win this game, it definitely breathes a little more life into us. This group has always had a lot of fun playing, regardless of the situation. We think we've still got a push."
The Sharks can't wait any longer to make that push. No matter how close they think they've been, they'll need to be better on Thursday if they hope to extend the series.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Scoring from All Sources
Evgeni Malkin's first goal of the Final turned out to be the winner in Game 4 on Monday night, but the Penguins haven't needed to rely on their superstars to have success in these playoffs.
As a 22-year-old, Malkin earned the Conn Smythe Trophy with 14 goals and 36 points when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009. This year, his offensive output is essentially half that. Heading into Game 5, he's tied for second in team scoring with five goals and 17 points.
A huge part of the Penguins' success in these playoffs has been the offensive contributions throughout the lineup, whether it's the so-called "third line" of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel, the rookies like Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Tom Kuhnhackl, or the important goals from defensemen like Ben Lovejoy and Ian Cole. Veteran forwards have also been crucial—Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr each have scored two game-winning goals.
With Pittsburgh, it has been impossible to know where the next goal is coming from. Defensemen Olli Maatta and Justin Schultz are the only regulars who haven't scored so far in these playoffs. Maybe it'll be their turn in Game 5.
San Jose Sharks: Stars Must Bring Offense
Four games. Seven goals. This is not how the San Jose Sharks succeed at hockey.
Goaltender Martin Jones has lived up to his end of the bargain during the Final, but the team in front of him hasn't contributed the necessary scoring support to consistently turn those goaltending performances into wins.
The Sharks ranked fourth in the NHL in the regular season by scoring an average of 2.89 goals per game, just a hair behind the Penguins' 2.94. In the playoffs, San Jose was converting at a comfortable 3.50 goals per game before running into Pittsburgh. Now, heading into Game 5, that number has dropped to 3.18 but is still a little better than Pittsburgh's 3.09.
Paging Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns and Joe Thornton.
They're four of five players to have hit the 20-point plateau in these playoffs—Phil Kessel's the lone Penguin in the group. Other than the Game 1 goals by now-injured winger Tomas Hertl and Patrick Marleau, the rest of the Sharks' scoring in this series has come from depth players—Justin Braun (twice), Joel Ward, Joonas Donskoi and Melker Karlsson.
The big guns need to bring it on Thursday in order to give San Jose a chance of forcing Game 6.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Crosby Sees It Through
In the years since Sidney Crosby won his Stanley Cup in 2009, we have seen the Penguins captain struggle in the postseason. The effects of a 2011 concussion lingered for years. In 2013, he suffered a gruesome facial injury after being hit in the jaw by a puck near the end of the regular season.
When Crosby went pointless in eight of the first nine games of the 2015-16 season, there was speculation that the 28-year-old's best playing days were behind him. Yet here he is, one game away from once again winning the Stanley Cup.
Crosby has a fan in Wayne Gretzky, according to Chris Johnston of Sportsnet. "It’s not a big secret: I think he’s the best player in the game" said Gretzky. "He just sees the game the right way, he always has.
"He’s on a different level when he’s playing like he is right now."
In 2009, Crosby suffered a knee injury in the second period of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Detroit Red Wings. He spent the entire third period on the bench, unable to help his team lock down its nail-biting 2-1 win.
Expect to see him take full advantage of the opportunity to see things through to a victorious conclusion on Thursday night.
All stats courtesy of NHL.com.