Penguins on verge of Stanley Cup

Stanley Cup Hockey

AP Photo by Eric Risberg/Getty Images

Sadly, the season is finally coming to an end. With a convincing 3-1 victory in Game 4 over the Sharks last night, the Penguins will bring a 3-1 series lead home to Pittsburgh. They can close out the Sharks on Thursday and win the Stanley Cup.

Admittedly, I haven’t watched much of the series. I’ve caught bits and pieces of each game. It’s hard to watch a bitter rival win the Cup. After watching most of Game 1, that was all I needed to see. I decided the Sharks had no shot. The Pens’ superior speed and relentless fore-check are too much to overcome. They’ve basically peppered Martin Jones throughout the first four games. If not for his strong play, the series would already be over.

That’s how dominant the Pens are. They are doing the same thing to a much better San Jose team that they did to the Rangers in a lopsided first round. The result so far is similar except every game has been close with Games 2 and 3 going to overtime. More a credit to Jones’ brilliance and the Sharks not giving up despite being largely outplayed.

It’s hard to believe one goal decided the first three games. In Game 1, it was Nick Bonino winning it with two and a half minutes left from Kris Letang off great pressure from Conn Smythe hopeful Phil Kessel. Game 2 needed sudden death. In it, Sidney Crosby beat Logan Couture on an offensive draw, setting up rookie Conor Sheary in the slot for the overtime winner. Afterwards, Couture complained about Crosby ‘cheating’ on face-offs, leading to a firestorm. Everyone does. Is it any surprise Sid got away with it? It still didn’t explain the blown coverage that left Sheary wide open.

Game 3 looked like it would go the same way. But Joel Ward forced overtime. This time, it was the Sharks who pulled it out. Joonas Donskoi pulled off a sensational move around the net firing home the winner short side through two Pens and past Matt Murray. The rookie netminder is Kessel’s main competition for playoff MVP. He has a 2.09 goals-against-average and .925 save percentage. Kessel leads the Pens in scoring with 10 goals and 11 assists with a plus-six rating. Half of the 10 have come on the power play. But it’s been the HBK line with Bonino and that guy, Carl Hagelin who have been the Pens’ most consistent players. They’ve combined for 19 goals and 32 assists totaling 51 points with a plus-24. Domination at 5-on-5.

It was the heady Hagelin who found a cutting Eric Fehr for the put away goal with over two minutes left icing another desperate Sharks’ comeback on Monday. It’s poetic that the pesky Swede who ended the Pens’ season a year ago in the first round is having a great postseason. He did this once before in 2014 on a line with Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis. The difference is he’s probably a better player now. Like most of his former Ranger teammates, he experienced heartache and pain two straight years. That experience undoubtedly has helped him. The chemistry with Bonino and Kessel is special. Their combination of speed, skill and play-making along with relentlessness is why they’ve succeeded.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Mike Sullivan. It’s funny how things turn out. I was told he was the real reason behind John Tortorella’s dismissal. To be fair, the power play was awful. It wasn’t until he was sacked with Tortorella in Vancouver that Sullivan finally went his own way. He worked as an assistant under Ken Hitchcock in St. Louis. Then was hired by the Penguins to coach their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, replacing John Hynes, who was hired by the Devils.

For a while, it looked like the Pens were going nowhere under beleaguered second-year coach Mike Johnston. They continued to play a dull style which didn’t fit with stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. Finally, he was replaced in December by Sullivan, who adjusted the system to a more aggressive style, emphasizing team speed and encouraging pinches by D. That included the acquired Trevor Daley, who didn’t fit in Chicago. A skating defenseman with offensive skill, he meshed well under Sullivan. Then Hagelin came over from the Ducks in a deal that sent David Perron to Anaheim. A pair of moves made by GM Jim Rutherford that improved the Pens.

Sometimes, all it takes is a coaching change to wake up a underachieving team. The Pens were lifeless under the bland Johnston. However, the fiery Sullivan who had success in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton brought up Sheary and Bryan Rust. The two speedsters were great fits. He also used Bonino the way he should’ve been. Ironically, it took a Malkin injury for Bonino to get his chance with Hagelin and Kessel. Kessel needed the puck more. He didn’t have it enough with Crosby or Malkin. He also needed to be pushed. The hard working Hagelin and unselfish Bonino were great fits. Once Malkin returned in the first round, he played on a different line. Sullivan didn’t mess with chemistry.

That’s what good coaches do. The biggest difference with Sullivan is his passion. Similar to Tortorella, he doesn’t accept undisciplined play. The past few postseasons saw the Pens come apart with even their biggest stars taking bad penalties. It didn’t take much to get Crosby and Malkin off their game. Under Sullivan, we haven’t seen that. Each has been more disciplined. Even if they still get away with cheap stuff, they’ve led by example.

It’s still hard to believe even without Daley, who was done last round with a broken ankle, the Pens’ blue line hasn’t missed a beat. While Letang gets most of the hard minutes, Olli Maatta has returned and played well. Every defenseman has chipped in. Even vets Ben Lovejoy and Ian Cole, who scored the game’s first goal in last night’s win.

There’s also something to be said for how much the Pens are willing to sacrifice for the good of the team. Players have blocked shots and kept most of the chances to the outside. They play well in front of Murray, who returned to win Games 6 and 7 against the Lightning. Ironically, one of those kids Rust did damage scoring some huge goals.

It’s Sullivan’s trust in all his players that has allowed the Pens to be in this position. They’re a four line team. They no longer rely on just Crosby and Malkin’s skill. They outwork opponents. So, even with neither having sensational postseasons, here they are a game away. They can clinch the franchise’s fourth Cup on home ice. Something they didn’t do in ’91, ’92 or ’09.

Unless the Sharks can summon up the energy, it’s hard to see this series getting extended to a Game 6 back in San Jose. They’ll need much better efforts from Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns, Couture and Paul Martin, who has been badly exposed. Without Tomas Hertl, it’s already tough. Can they steal a game in Pittsburgh and make it interesting? Jones will probably have to stand on his head.

The Pens look like a team of destiny. We’ll see if they can wrap it up in two days.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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