Thanks to depth, Penguins closing in on Stanley Cup

Thanks to contributions from fourth-liner Eric Fehr and defenseman Ian Cole, the Pittsburgh Penguins are one win away from hoisting the Stanley Cup.
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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Not long before the regular season ended and the Pittsburgh Penguins began marching to within one victory of the Stanley Cup, coach Mike Sullivan ordered a significant locker room shakeup by delegating Eric Fehr as the new pregame lineup presenter. It was an inspired choice. Popular among teammates for his dry humor, speaking in tones that defenseman Ian Cole describes as “a little growl there, a gravely announcer’s voice,” Fehr assumed the new gig with appropriate gusto. The ensuing results, meanwhile, ensured steady employment.

“I had a little hot streak at the end of the season,” the fourth-line forward said, “so it kept with me. I’m still the guy.”

Penguins hold off Sharks to take 3-1 Cup Final lead

No arguments there, especially not Monday night. Hours after bellowing out the starters with his usual bark before Game 4—"in net, Big Murrrrr..."—Fehr cranked the cushion goal in the Penguins’ 3–1 win over the San Jose Sharks, sending them back east with a commanding series lead of the same margin. In that moment, as the puck sailed past Sharks goalie Martin Jones, the announcement was for everyone to hear: The Sharks are not chum yet, not by any stretch, but unless they join the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and become only the second of 33 NHL clubs ever to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the Cup Final, Pittsburgh will soon secure its fourth title in franchise history.

“Everyone’s aware of the situation,” Cole said. “Everyone’s aware that they’re going to be playing for their lives. I think if you’re not aware, you’re a fool. If you say it’s just another game, no big deal, as much as you want to say that, that’s not the case. It’s an elimination game in the Stanley Cup Final. Realizing that, accepting it, and continuing to play under the pressure is huge. So far I think we’ve handled all the elimination games very well, and I think given our track record this one should be a good time too.”

If the Penguins’ lips indeed smooch silver, Game 4 will merely serve as another indication of the depth that has tugged them here. There was Fehr, the bargain-bin Manitoban potato farmer and author of a children’s book about a bullying bulldozer, notching his third goal of the postseason and helping hold San Jose’s power play scoreless for the third straight game. There was goalie Matt Murray, withstanding a dozen third-period shots and moving within one victory shy of the NHL rookie record (15) in a single playoffs shared by Patrick Roy (1986), Ron Hextall ('87) and Cam Ward (2006).

There was Cole, the third-pairing defenseman scoring for the first time in 104 games, an opening salvo fired when Phil Kessel’s rebound bounded off Jones’s leg pad into open space. “Maybe could’ve walked into it a little bit, but when you see the yawning cage you want to get it there as quick as you can and take advantage of him as he’s sliding over,” Cole said. “Saving a special one for a special game.”

Three Stars: Malkin comes alive in Penguins’ Game 4 win

​The eventual game-winner, though, belonged to Pittsburgh’s stars. On the power play after San Jose winger Melker Karlsson was whistled for interfering with Fehr in the aftermath of a face-off, Kessel coaxed a wrist pass through traffic, right onto Malkin’s stick. The legitimacy of the man advantage was up for debate; later, Sharks coach Pete DeBoer agreed with a reporter’s assertion that Fehr “kind of flopped.” Kessel’s feed for Malkin’s first point of the series, however, was not in question. “My goal is like Phil give me empty net,” Malkin said. “It’s not great goal, but it’s just go to net and stay close to net and try to play around net, you know?”

And now, after Metallica shredded the National Anthem and SAP Center again thundered with the energy of a city seeing its first Cup final in 25 years of existence, the Sharks will hit the road looking to salvage hope. They have still not led in this entire series, battling from behind after Cole scored less than eight minutes into the opening period. A 24-20 advantage made them the first team in 13 games to outshoot Pittsburgh, sure, but the Penguins also blocked at least 20 pucks for the third time this series. A strong third period push resulted in Karlsson’s goal at 8:07, which brought San Jose within one, but it couldn’t climb from what Cole and Malkin dug early.

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“We've been chasing the game the whole series by not scoring first,” DeBoer said. “That takes you out of your four-line rhythm. It affects all parts of your game. We've been on the other end of that in the playoffs where we've jumped out to the lead on some teams and made them change their game…That's the biggest thing we have to fix. We have to find a way to get on the board earlier in the game instead of chasing it all night.”

And if not? The next time Sullivan hands Fehr the starting lineup, that gravelly voice might just growl its last announcement of the season.