Penguins vs. Sharks: Keys to Victory in Game 6 of NHL Stanley Cup Final
Only the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs have come back to win a Stanley Cup after being 3-1 behind in such a series. San Jose took the first step toward duplicating that feat with a 4-2 win in Game 5 of their series on Thursday, thanks in large part to a dazzling 44-save performance from goaltender Martin Jones.
As the Penguins take their second crack at finishing off the series, this time without the advantages that come with home ice, here are the keys to victory for both teams. Game 6 will go Sunday at 8 p.m. ET, with television coverage on NBC.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Better Goaltending
Matt Murray atypically showed a case of rookie jitters at the beginning of Game 5, and that was enough to hand the Sharks the win.
Murray faced just five shots in the first 14:47 of the first period, but three of those resulted in goals. According to the Associated Press (via Sportsnet), Murray used phrases such as "a little bit jittery" and "a little bit nervous" to describe how he felt during that span—highly uncharacteristic for a rookie who has had ice in his veins for most of the playoffs.
As a rule, Murray has responded well after losses throughout the playoffs, including the Sharks' previous overtime win in Game 3 of the Final. When it comes to channeling the adrenaline that will inevitably surface on Sunday, "it’s just learning how to handle it the right way," he said. "If you can kind of harness that and use it for the right reasons. Use that energy and feed off the crowd and stuff like that you’re going to be in good shape."
San Jose Sharks: Break the Blockade
In his "30 Thoughts" column, Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman pointed out that one of the defensive tools the Penguins have been emphasizing in this series is shot blocking. "They are coming at us to block shots more than they usually do," said Marc-Edouard Vlasic, one of the San Jose defensemen who normally helps set up his team's offense from back on the blue line, per Friedman.
The same Penguins team that averaged 13 blocks a game in the regular season is up to 21 in the playoffs—and blocked an astonishing 38 shots in Game 3 of the Final.
The number dropped to just 10 blocks in Game 5, but that's mostly a function of just 36 total shot attempts by the Sharks in 60 minutes. San Jose generated limited offense for the rest of the game after taking the 3-2 lead in the latter stages of the first period.
Defenseman Brent Burns scored in Game 5, but his goal came from down low. That's one approach to working around Pittsburgh's aggressive shot-blocking game plan.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Wear Down Martin Jones
The biggest reason why the Penguins' Stanley Cup plans didn't unfold as they'd hoped on Thursday was the incredible performance of San Jose netminder Martin Jones.
Other than a 21-second lapse in the first period, during which he allowed two goals, Jones was astonishing, deflecting wave after wave of Pittsburgh offense. By the time the final buzzer sounded, he had faced 46 shots, including seven off Patric Hornqvist, six each from Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin, five from Conor Sheary and four apiece from Phil Kessel and Nick Bonino.
Jones has been phenomenal throughout the Final, facing more than 40 shots in three of the five games. Already with 23 playoff appearances, he has played over 200 more minutes than Murray and faced 102 more shots, yet the two goalies' numbers are almost identical.
If Jones finally succumbs to the physical and mental exhaustion of the most taxing season of his hockey career on Sunday, the Penguins will end the night with the Stanley Cup in their hands.
San Jose Sharks: Even More from the Big Guns
The Sharks offense fuelled the team's success through the first three rounds of the playoffs, but their top scorers were neutralized through the first four games of the Stanley Cup Final.
In Game 5, that changed. Brent Burns scored, Joe Pavelski scored into an empty net, Joe Thornton got an assist and Logan Couture earned three points in the first period—another big effort when his team needed it most.
Couture has done his best work this spring in his team's biggest games, also posting three-point nights in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final against the St. Louis Blues, Game 7 of the Round 2 series against the Nashville Predators and the clinching Game 5 of the first round against the Los Angeles Kings.
Another big night from Couture and strong performances from San Jose's other top players could set the stage for Game 7 back in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Strong Special Teams
Power-play opportunities have been limited for both teams in the Final. The referees have kept the penalty calls to a minimum, but Pittsburgh has the edge in the special teams battle in the series so far.
The Sharks are now 1-for-10 with the man advantage in the Final, with their only power-play goal coming off the stick of the now-injured Tomas Hertl. Pittsburgh is 2-for-11, with power-play goals from Evgeni Malkin in each of the last two games.
If the Penguins can continue that trend, capitalizing on their opportunities and neutralizing the potent special teams talents of San Jose, they'll stand a good chance of recording their 16th win of the playoffs on Sunday.
San Jose Sharks: Greater Will to Win
Counting both the regular season and playoffs, the San Jose Sharks will be playing their 106th game of the 2015-16 season on Sunday—the Penguins play their 105th. At this stage, the time for X's and O's has passed, says San Jose winger Joel Ward.
"At this stage, you’re just going out there and you’re just battling," Ward told Jenn Menendez of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Whoever wins more battles gets more opportunities. ... For us it’s going to come down to small individual battles on the ice."
Coach Peter DeBoer believes his team's battle level is already dialled in. "These guys don’t need to be inspired to play," DeBoer said after practice on Saturday. "They’re in the Stanley Cup [Final]. I’m just trying to get our game on the right track, get them out there with as much energy as possible and get our execution in the right place."
The Sharks hit the ice with the greater will to win in Game 5 in Pittsburgh. If they can do the same on Sunday, they'll earn the first chance to play for the Stanley Cup in franchise history.
All stats from NHL.com.