It’s hard to play catch-up every night, especially in the Stanley Cup Final. The Sharks learned that lesson Monday night in a 3-1 loss to the Penguins in Game 4, and their season now sits on the brink, trailing Pittsburgh 3-1 in the series.
The Sharks continued a disturbing trend by allowing the Penguins to score first once again. This time, the response was not enough. There would be no late-game heroics, no overtime drama — just the team that has been the superior all series long, proving why.
This story has been updated with quotes and additional material from the Sharks dressing room at SAP Center in San Jose.
Head coach Peter DeBoer said:
“When you have the lead, you can play differently. You feel a lot more comfortable getting a four-line rhythm, getting your guys there, trusting them. There’s not that pressure that we have to create a scoring chance or score a goal.”
Despite enjoying success early in games in their previous playoff series, the Sharks have run into a wall against the speedy, puck-possessing Penguins. DeBoer continued:
“They’ve done a good job of that because they’ve had the lead and we haven’t put ourselves in that situation yet. We’ve got to find an answer for that. I don’t know what it is. Again, that hasn’t been an issue until this series, but it’s been a big issue here through three games.”
Despite a third-period tally from Melker Karlsson, the Sharks were unable to overcome a two-goal deficit in the third. The Penguins grabbed the two-goal lead early in the second period, just seconds into a power play when Phil Kessel found Evgeni Malkin for a tap-in.
With the sellout crowd restless and needing to light a fire, DeBoer switched up the lines, moving Logan Couture to the first line with Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton.
The Sharks responded with more urgency, but failed to test Matt Murray. Couture had the period’s best chance on a bad turnover by the Penguins, but his shot from point blank was stopped by Murray. A power play at the end of the period proved worthless, with the Sharks mustering just one shot on goal.
“I thought there were goals out there. We had some really good looks. Their goalie made some saves and we didn’t finish.”
San Jose came out with energy in the third. The Sharks peppered Murray with shots and got on the board midway through the period when Karlsson found a loose puck in the low slot after a shot from the point by Brenden Dillon and buried it to cut the deficit to 2-1.
They had the Penguins on their heels for the rest of the third, attacking aggressively and peppering Murray with shots. But Murray and the Penguins stood tall, fending off the Sharks’ barrage and, a breakaway goal by Eric Fehr with just under two minutes to play wrapped up the win for Pittsburgh.
This is the first game that has been decided by more than one goal — and it was a one-goal game until late in the third — a frustrating stat to Pavelski:
“It’s different if we’re 3-1 and don’t have anything. It’s a different story. Right now, the hole we’re at, a goal or two probably changes the outcome.”
Paul Martin, who played for the Penguins the last five seasons before signing with the Sharks this season, echoed those thoughts:
“It’s tight on both sides. There’s not a lot of opportunities. They were able to execute on a couple of theirs. We had some chances at the end that we didn’t capitalize on. It’s right there. Just disappointing, a tough one for us.”
The Sharks started this game much better than the previous three, but still allowed the game’s first goal a little more than seven minutes into the first period due to a poorly-executed line change.
With Kessel rushing past center ice, the Sharks decided to change on the fly, and it cost them. Kessel’s shot from the right side created a juicy rebound on the other side for a wide-open Ian Cole to shoot it past a sprawling Martin Jones.
It was an ill-advised change that put the Sharks down early once again. Couture lamented the error:
“You don’t want to give up the first goal, especially on that tough change. 1-on-4, guys didn’t pick up [Cole] coming in late. It’s tough when you have a break down like that and they score.”
Despite outshooting the Penguins 8-6, the Sharks trailed 1-0 after one.
The Sharks were without Tomas Hertl for the second consecutive game, with a report indicating that he is done for the season with a lower body injury. They have led just once the entire series — after Joonas Donskoi’s game-winner in overtime in Game 3.
These are not the same Sharks that cruised their way through three tough Western Conference opponents. Martin remarked:
“We haven’t gotten to our best game yet. I think that’s encouraging as we haven’t played some of our better hockey. We haven’t played at our best. I think everyone has another level that we can rely on and believe we can get to it.”
Now, with their backs against the wall, jumping to an early lead — starting with Game 5 Thursday night in Pittsburgh — is an imperative.
“Win a game. Go win three periods and move on. We’re going to battle to the end. We’re confident we can go to Pittsburgh and win a hockey game.”