If we're being honest, things don't look good for the San Jose Sharks heading into tonight's must-win Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final (8:00 ET; NBC, CBC, TVAS). The Pittsburgh Penguins have undeniably been the better team through the first four games of this series. They're deeper, faster and have executed their game plan with merciless efficiency.
Given a chance to clinch on home ice, they'll be fired up to bury their opponents.
But don't be too quick to toss the Sharks on the cart. They're in trouble, but they're not dead yet.
"The one thing about our group is there's a lot of belief in our game and in each other," coach Peter DeBoer said. "The other thing about our group is they've been on the other side, up 3-0, saw how quickly that vanished against L.A. three or four years ago. We have some guys that vividly remember that. They know how quickly one win can turn the momentum."
One win. For a team that's advanced past three strong opponents already this spring, that should be doable. But how to climb that hill?
It's critical that they give themselves a chance to play with the lead at some point. Scoring the first goal? That'd be ideal. The Sharks are 9-2 when they get it, so it's significant ... but the game doesn't have to turn on it. The pressure to get on the board first has been building as the series has worn on, and you could sense the sag in the Sharks when they didn't break the ice in Game 4. They have to guard against that kind of letdown if it happens again in Game 5 and stay the course. Ultimately, the only lead that matters is the one at the end of the game.
To get there, they have to focus on creating more opportunities. Matt Murray's been good in net for the Pens, but he's not stealing this series. And he's shown some vulnerability from time to time. Two of the past three goals they've scored (Joel Ward in Game 3 and Melker Karlsson in Game 4) were stoppable shots. Testing him more often is key. And if they can get him moving side to side, so much the better.
Getting those chances hasn't been easy to this point because the Penguins are doing two things exceptionally well: blocking shots and applying double-team pressure as soon as a Shark touches the puck. Both of those tactics have derailed San Jose's offense and generated waves of turnovers to kickstart their own transition game.
But do the math. If two defenders are pressuring one attacker, that means someone is being left unattended. With better execution, the Sharks identify that open man, get the puck to him and catch the Penguins scrambling to the next assignment. Simple? Not hardly. The Pens really are just that good. But doable? Absolutely. After all, San Jose's execution on the other side of the puck has shown clear signs of improvement.
Take Game 4, when the Sharks limited the Penguins to just 20 shots after allowing an average of 38 through the first three games.
"I think we did a better job [with our] sticks," DeBoer explained. "I think early in the series, we were just giving them a little bit too much room. They slung a lot of pucks to the net. Our awareness in that area was much higher."
If they can change their execution one way, there's hope they can do it the other as well.
And finally, they need to take advantage of the environment. There'll be nearly 20,000 fans packed into Consol Energy Center on Thursday night, all waiting to see the Pens skate the Cup for the first time on home ice. It's disingenuous to suggest that puts the pressure on Pittsburgh, but there's some weight to the expectation that they're going to finish this series off. That may open a window for the Sharks. And for a team that knows something about sending the other team's fans home unhappy, that might be all they need.
"We were the best road team in the league," DeBoer said. "I think we're confident on the road."
The Sharks have come a long way this spring. With no room for error, the coach expects their best effort of the series.
"I think our guys are up for some heavy lifting," he said. We feel we can get it done."
More shots. A lead. A win. Take it home for Game 6.
They're not dead yet.