The Pittsburgh Penguins are just two wins away from the title after beating the San Jose Sharks 2-1 in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night.
Conor Sheary rifled a wrist shot over the shoulder of Martin Jones just 2:35 into overtime to seal the victory for the Penguins.
Phil Kessel scored his team-high 10th goal of the postseason at 8:20 of the second period. An aggressive forecheck by Carl Hagelin forced Roman Polak to rush a pass attempt to his partner, Brenden Dillon. The puck was picked off by Game 1 hero Nick Bonino, who sent the puck to Kessel for an easy open-side tap-in to give Pittsburgh the lead.
Justin Braun tied the game for the Sharks at 15:55 of the third when his seeing-eye slapper from the top of the circle darted through a forest of bodies and banked in off the post. The goal, his first of the postseason, was assisted by Logan Couture and Joel Ward.
Pittsburgh netminder Matt Murray stopped 21 of 22 shots to record the victory. Jones was outstanding at the other end of the ice, making 28 stops to keep the Sharks close. With the loss, he falls to 0-4 in overtime this spring.
As in Game 1, Pittsburgh controlled much of the play, out-attempting the Sharks by a wide margin and dictating the pace with their speed and relentless pressure on the puck.
"I think that's the identity of our team," Sheary said. "I think a lot of guys have bought into that system. I think when we do that, play in people's face, we overwhelm teams. It's been working out well for us."
Sidney Crosby followed up a strong performance in the opener with a star turn in Game 2. "He's a threat every time he's on the ice," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said of Crosby, who set up Sheary's clincher with a key face-off win. "He's playing the game the right way. He plays a complete game, the full sheet. He's great on the puck battles. I think he's inspiring for our group. He's doing everything in his power to help this team win right now."
San Jose's top line of Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Tomas Hertl was again held in check, combining for just four shots in the game. The trio is pointless at even strength in the series.
The 2-0 series lead is significant. The Pens become the 50th team in NHL history to win the first two games of a Cup final; 44 of the previous 49 have gone on to win the series. The Sharks have gone down by that margin 10 times in their playoff history. They've yet to come back from the deficit.
The 2011 Boston Bruins were the last team to go down 0-2 in the final and rebound to win the Cup.
Game 3 is Saturday night in San Jose.
Here are some quick thoughts on Game 2:
The Sharks had just two players who showed any ability to win face-offs in their own zone in Game 2: Joe Pavelski (4/7) and Chris Tierney (7/10). But on the decisive play it was Ward who was sent to the circle against Crosby. A huge tactical error.
Crosby, who won 71% of his draws on the night (17/24), made short work of the overmatched winger and sent the puck cleanly back to Kris Letang. The defenseman quickly found Sheary in the high slot, where he launched the game winner.
Sheary became just the fifth rookie in Stanley Cup Final history to score an OT winner. The others: Montreal's Brian Skrudland (Game 2, 1986, vs. Calgary), Montreal's Jacques Lemaire (Game 1, 1968, vs. St. Louis), Montreal's Jimmy Peters (Game 2, 1946, vs. Boston) and Alf Pike of the New York Rangers (Game 1, 1940, vs. Toronto).
Tweet of the Night
This gem from Dave Stubbs perfectly sums up the ineptitude of San Jose's attack for much of this game:
Notable Number: 5
If Sharks coach Pete DeBoer made one thing clear before Game 2, it's that he was displeased by the number of chances generated by his team in the opener. The message: He expected more shots in this one, especially from his top players.
It didn't happen. San Jose was held to nine through the first 39 minutes of play and didn't get its 10th until Joe Pavelski's tip attempt on the power play in the dying seconds of second period. That shot was just the fifth taken by a Sharks forward through the first two periods. Not exactly the response DeBoer was looking for.
What It Means
It was clear from the start that this would be one of the fastest Stanley Cup Finals in history. It's looking now like it might also be one of the shortest.
Forget the score. This was the Penguins putting their palm to the foreheads of the overmatched Sharks and laughing as they tried to swing back.
Much has already been made about the difference speed has made in this series, but it's not how fast the Pens are skating that stands out. It's how quickly they get to pucks. If one is loose, they're on it first. If a Shark mishandles a touch, a Pen is on top of him right away, forcing a turnover or a desperation play.
Taking away time and space is something coaches at every level of the game emphasize. What we're seeing from the Penguins in this series might be the ultimate realization of that goal.
"I think our team has the ability to wear teams down with our puck-pursuit game and forcing defensemen to turn and go back for pucks," Sullivan said. "It's tiring. It wears on people. I've seen that throughout the course of this playoffs. I think that's one of the strengths of our group, is when we establish the puck-pursuit game like we have, it makes it hard on our opponents. We become a much more difficult team to play against."
Watching how effortlessly they've asserted their will through these first two games, it's hard to imagine how the Sharks might counter in Game 3. Not that DeBoer is ready to run up the white flag quite yet.
"Game 1 was decided in the last two minutes," he said. "Tonight is an overtime game. I think we'll hold off on the funeral. We have a lot of hockey left to play."
Which is true. The Sharks still have five chances to win four games. And plenty of series have taken a 180-degree turn after a switch in venues. But if they're going to avoid the sweep, DeBoer has to light a fire under his offense. The Sharks have scored twice at five-on-five through the first two games. And their always dangerous power play has been a non-factor as the Pens have stayed out of the box. For that to change, San Jose first has to spend more time with the puck at even strength.
And for that to happen, guys like Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski have to make their presence felt in Game 3. If they can't, the Sharks might have to start looking into those funeral plans after all.