In case you were living on another planet, there is still hockey to be played. It’ll take place tonight at the Shark Tank when the Sharks host the Penguins for a Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals on NBC. Believe it or not, San Jose is still very much alive thanks to a heroic 44-save performance from goaltender Martin Jones. His outstanding play allowed the Sharks to stave off elimination in a hard fought 4-2 win in Game 5 at Pittsburgh.
Despite again being largely outplayed, out-shot and out-chanced by a furious Pens’ assault, the Sharks can thank Jones for still having a chance to win one home game tonight and send the series back to the Steel city for a winner take all Game 7. So, can they do it? Is there enough left in the tank to somehow get this series back to Pittsburgh? Well, an extra day off should help. But much depends on the start. The first 10 minutes should give a good indication of what’ll happen.
San Jose was able to get to rookie netminder Matt Murray early in Game 5 on goals from Brent Burns and Logan Couture. The Pens responded quickly on goals from Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin 22 seconds apart to tie the score. But a good response from the Sharks resulted in Couture finding Melker Karlsson in the slot for a quick wrist shot that beat Murray upstairs later in the first period. Couture picked a great night to break out with a three-point effort on San Jose’s first three goals. He leads all scorers with 29 points (9-20-29) this postseason.
Somehow, Jones made Karlsson’s tally hold up. Despite a Pens’ onslaught that included 31 shots the final two periods, the San Jose goalie was brilliant. The former King who actually was part of the 2014 Stanley Cup champs as the back up to Jonathan Quick, made some acrobatic saves. He denied point blank chances committing highway robbery on Hagelin and also denying Patric Hornqvist on the doorstep off a Sidney Crosby set up from behind the net.
The Pens also hit a couple of goalposts with Phil Kessel perfectly set up on a power play but having a shot deflect off Jones and off both posts and out. Luck was definitely on the Sharks’ side. Jones deserved a break. It’s been his play that’s allowed his team to still breathe. They would’ve been swept already. Out-shot and out-chanced by a wide margin in four of the five games, they can thank Jones for their two victories. Does he have another clutch performance in him later?
One thing that differed from Game 4 when they lost 3-1 at home to fall behind 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, was their compete level. Even though they were out-shot 14-6 with both goalies in net during the frantic third, plenty of Sharks laid it on the line blocking shots and breaking up Pens’ chances. Twelve players combined for 17 blocks. That included struggling captain Joe Pavelski, who went without a goal in the series until his empty netter on a great defensive play from Joe Thornton sealed it. Maybe that’ll get Pavelski going. He hasn’t been the same player. Whether injured or not, he must perform in order for the Sharks to come back.
As for the Pens, they really don’t need to change too much. Their speed and relentless fore-check have been the difference in the Stanley Cup Final. They have harassed the Sharks in their end, keeping the puck in for long stretches and forcing turnovers. Pittsburgh pinches their D so aggressively that the Sharks have no time to get pucks out. Expect more of the same from the Pens, who don’t want to go back home and risk a Game 7 where all the pressure would be on.
However, I can’t help but think back to 22 years ago when the Rangers were in the exact same situation. Having dominated to go up 3-1 on the Canucks, everyone thought it was over. Then Vancouver scored the first three in Game 5 before the Rangers rallied to tie it, only for the Canucks to reel off the last three to prevent a celebration 54 years in the making. Vancouver then routed the Rangers at home in Game 6, sending the series back to MSG for a do-or-die Game 7. I will never forget how nervous I was watching it with my family as they held on for dear life in the third period to win 3-2. The Canucks a Martin Gelinas goalpost along with a Nathan Lafayette one away from forcing sudden death.
Even though they don’t want to hear it, it’s still good to have that home Game 7 in your back pocket. It’s very hard for a road team to win a Stanley Cup in the seventh game. Ironically, it was the ’08-09 Pens who beat the Red Wings in a Game 7 for their third Cup thanks to a Marc-Andre Fleury save on Nick Lidstrom with a second to spare. The ’10-11 Bruins also did it to the Canucks shutting them out 4-0. So, it’s not impossible. But first, the Sharks must deliver a win tonight to reach that point.
If they can, Game 7 won’t be until Wednesday night. Another extra day off for each side. We’ll see if the Sharks can send this series back to Pittsburgh for a winner take all Game 7.