Sharks vs. Penguins: Preview of Game 5 of 2016 Stanley Cup Final
The Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the San Jose Sharks by a score of 3-1 in Game 4 of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. This game was also the first time in this series where the margin of victory was more than one goal.
With the win, the Penguins hold a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven matchup. The series returns to Pittsburgh for Game 5, giving the Pens a golden opportunity to capture the Cup on home ice.
The Sharks, meanwhile, must win this game to keep their championship hopes alive and force Game 6 back in San Jose.
In this preview of Game 5 of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, we'll examine the critical factors that could seal a championship for the Penguins or keep the Sharks' comeback hopes alive.
You can weigh in with your thoughts on this preview in the comments section below.
Recap of Game 4
Once again, the Penguins got off to a good start and were rewarded with the game-opening goal. Sharks goaltender Martin Jones gave up a fat rebound on a Phil Kessel shot, which defenseman Ian Cole pounced on for his first of the playoffs.
In the second period, Evgeni Malkin made it 2-0 by tipping in a hard pass from Kessel. It was Malkin's first goal of the series, as well as the Penguins' first power-play tally of the series.
The Penguins came close to widening the lead. Pittsburgh blueliner Justin Schultz and winger Tom Kuhnhackl fired shots that beat Jones cleanly but clanked harmlessly off the goalposts.
In the third, the Sharks cut the lead to 2-1 on a goal by forward Melker Karlsson. They pushed furiously to tie the game, outshooting the Penguins 12-7 and outchancing them 11-3.
But with just over two minutes remaining in the third, Penguins left wing Carl Hagelin sprung center Eric Fehr on a partial breakaway. Fehr made no mistake, beating Jones to the blocker side to seal the victory.
Closing the Deal at Home
With a 3-1 lead in this series, the Penguins stand an excellent chance of closing out this series in Game 5. However, they'll face considerable pressure to wrap this up at home.
Over 18,000 fans will jam the Consol Energy Center expecting to see the Penguins win a Stanley Cup on home ice for the first time in franchise history. The energy in the building could be overwhelming.
Many of the Penguins have never been this close to winning the Cup. They could get swept up in the emotion of the moment, lose their focus and get knocked off their game plan.
The Sharks will be counting on it. Given how this series has gone, it could be the only thing that shifts momentum away from the Penguins.
Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz, Marc-Andre Fleury and captain Sidney Crosby were part of the Penguins' 2009 championship team. Their experience and leadership served the Penguins well thus far. It's up to them to keep their teammates' eyes on the prize.
The Sharks, meanwhile, face a more daunting challenge. They have to overcome Stanley Cup Final history as well as the Penguins. The Mercury News' Jon Wilner reports the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs are the only team to overcome a 3-1 series deficit to win the Stanley Cup.
Sharks Need a Lead
The Sharks' inability to grab a lead in any of the games in this series is a significant reason why they're down three games to one.
Not once in regulation have the Sharks held a lead. Their only victory came on an overtime goal in Game 3.
On June 7, Yahoo Sports' Greg Wyshynski reported Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer acknowledged how playing without a lead is affecting his game plan:
We've been chasing the game the whole series by not scoring first. That takes you out of your four-line rhythm. It affects all parts of your game. We've been on the other end of that in the playoffs where we've jumped out to the lead on some teams and made them change their game.
Getting off to a better start is key for the Sharks in Game 5. Throughout this series, they've started slowly. That's proved costly, as the fleet-footed Penguins consistently exploited.
It's not for a lack of effort on their part. They've been close in every game in this series.
The Sharks are trying to use their size and strength to slow and wear down the Penguins with their physical play. They're improving in the faceoff circle. In Game 4, they outshot Pittsburgh for the first time in this series.
However, they've yet to dominate the opening period from start to finish. Facing a do-or-die scenario in Game 5, it's crucial for the Sharks to get the first goal. Falling behind early again will be devastating to their confidence.
The Penguins' Stifling Defense
For the Sharks to win Game 5, they must find a way to thwart the Penguins' stingy defensive game. In the previous four games, the Penguins did a superb job of shutting down this postseason's highest-scoring team.
It's been a total team effort on the Penguins' part. They're working hard at both ends of the ice, breaking up their scoring chances and slowing their breakout attempts.
Sharks scorers Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Brent Burns and Joe Thornton are being almost completely neutralized. The Penguins aren't giving them the time and space necessary to create scoring plays. They have little open ice to move the puck well and are struggling to sustain offensive pressure.
Pittsburgh's defense has done a fine job eliminating rebounds. What isn't smothered by Penguins goaltender Matt Murray is swept away by his defensemen before the Sharks can pounce on them.
The Penguins continue to outnumber the Sharks in puck battles along the boards and in front of the net. They're also effectively breaking up many of the Sharks' passing attempts through the neutral zone.
If the Sharks can't find a way to crack the Penguins' stifling defense, this series will be over in Game 5.
Martin Jones Needs a Bounce-Back Game
For the Sharks to keep their flickering championship hopes alive, goaltender Martin Jones must be at his best in Game 5.
Jones, 26, was a workhorse in the first three games of this series. He faced a combined 113 shots, allowing only seven goals. His save percentage never went below .927. While the Sharks were being outshot and outchanced by the Penguins, Jones gave his team a chance to win.
Game 4, however, was Jones' worst of this series. He gave up three goals on 20 shots in a 3-1 loss, finishing with an .850 save percentage.
The Sharks starter didn't look sharp on two of those three goals. On the Pens' first goal, Jones gave up a fat rebound on a Phil Kessel shot that defenseman Ian Cole easily buried.
Jones couldn't be faulted on the second goal, a power-play tip-in by Evgeni Malkin. But he looked shaky on Eric Fehr's insurance goal late in the third, beaten high to the blocker side.
Like Penguins goalie Matt Murray, Jones has proved capable in this postseason of rebounding well from a bad game. He'll need a strong bounce-back effort to give his club a shot at extending this series.
Depth Makes a Difference
Throughout the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, much was made of the Penguins' speed advantage over the Sharks. It's also apparent the Penguins have the edge in roster depth, particularly on the forward lines.
The Penguins are quite comfortable rolling four forward lines. Among their forwards, only Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist saw over 20 minutes of total ice time in Game 4. Only one (Tom Kuhnhackl) received less than 10 minutes.
The Sharks, meanwhile, are relying heavily on their top players while giving little playing time to their fourth line.
In Game 4, head coach Peter DeBoer shortened his bench and skated three forward lines. Top-line forwards Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton saw over 24 minutes of ice time. Dainius Zubrus, Matt Nieto and Tommy Wingels barely saw the ice.
The Penguins are getting contributions from throughout their roster. Depth forwards Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Eric Fehr, along with defensemen Ben Lovejoy and Ian Cole, have risen to the occasion in this series.
With the Penguins having the last line change for Game 5, head coach Mike Sullivan can use his depth to garner more favorable line matches. As in the opening two games of this series, it could provide his club with a game-winning edge.
The Sharks' Big Guns Must Come Through
Take a good look at the above photo of San Jose Sharks captain Joe Pavelski, center Joe Thornton and defenseman Brent Burns. It was taken following a successful scoring play during the Western Conference Final against the St. Louis Blues.
Sadly for the Sharks, scenes of their leading scorers embracing following a goal have been nonexistent in this Stanley Cup Final.
Along with center Logan Couture, Pavelski, Thornton and Burns overwhelmed the Blues in six games. Their offense was also key to their elimination of the Los Angeles Kings and Nashville Predators.
Pavelski leads all playoff scorers with 13 goals, but he hasn't tallied a single point in this series. Burns had two assists in the opening game and hasn't dented the scoresheet since.
Thornton collected two assists in the Sharks' victory in Game 3, but those are the only points he's had thus far. Couture picked up assists in the first two games but none in Games 3 and 4.
It's not as though the Sharks' top players aren't working hard in this series. All have had some good scoring chances, but the stingy Penguins defense has largely thwarted their efforts.
The power play was a significant factor in the Sharks' march to the Final. Against the Penguins, however, they've scored only once in eight opportunities.
Down 3-1 in this series and with their backs to the wall, the Sharks need Pavelski, Thornton, Couture and Burns to somehow rediscover their scoring touch.