Nick Bonino celebrates his third-period goal with 2:33 left in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals (USA Today)
PITTSBURGH – Penguins forward Nick Bonino stood in place with both hands raised high, spinning slowly like the holiday display in a department store window, shining bright for everyone to see. The unclaimed stick of San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns lay just outside the blue paint, nestled underneath the pads of his goaltender Martin Jones, and nearby Paul Martin dropped to one knee in defeat. Into the celebration from the far corner charged Kris Letang, the Pittsburgh defenseman who had no business being that deep, at least not this late into the third period of a tie game. And yet here was the opener of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, decided by a bold rush, a smart read, and a chip shot by the center with the Civil War chinstrap. “It was a flipper or something like that,” Letang said. “I’m just glad he put that in.”
Two minutes and 33 seconds later, once the Penguins snuffed defenseman Ben Lovejoy’s hooking minor, survived a two-man disadvantage when Jones fled to the bench, and whipped Consol Energy Center into a roaring frenzy, the horn blared on their 3-2 victory, the first by an Eastern Conference team in Game 1 since 2006. It was then that the Carolina Hurricanes, helmed in their front office by GM Jim Rutherford, began the final push toward their first title in franchise history. And it was Tuesday night, with Rutherford watching his new team in the same capacity, that several shrewd moves pushed Pittsburgh to a 1-0 series lead.
The third-period goal by Bonino, acquired from Vancouver last July, was merely the climax. The backhanded feed that sprung Letang at the offensive blue line came via speedster Carl Hagelin, shipped back into the Metropolitan Division midseason from Anaheim. In the opening frame, forwards Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary became the first pair of rookies to open the Stanley Cup scoring since 1924, or roughly around when forward Matt Cullen, the $800,000 summer signee who stepped onto the second line after Rust exited with a head injury, was born. Before the game, television cameras captured coach Mike Sullivan, promoted from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Dec. 12 upon Mike Johnston’s firing, instructing his charges to play “fast and fearless.”
“We certainly didn't want to go into this series with a wait-and-see approach,” Sullivan said. “We didn't want to go through a feeling-out process. We wanted to try to go out and dictate the terms right away. That’s when we play our best, when we’re on our toes and we skate. We try to do it in a calculated way.
“When I use the term ‘fearless,’ I think that word encompasses a lot of things. Most specifically is, Let’s not get overwhelmed by the circumstance. Let’s not have any sort of anxiety out there because the stakes are high. Let’s embrace the moment. Let’s challenge each other to be our best and let’s have fun with this. I thought our guys did tonight.”
Seven years after their last Final appearance, the Penguins slugged their visitors from the outset, pelting more pucks on goal in the first period (15) than San Jose attempted shots altogether (14). In the Final for the first time in franchise history, the Sharks had basked in the moment since arriving here. Even a cadre of Pittsburgh fans showering their bus with boos at the team hotel two days ago was treated with enthusiasm. “It’s exciting times,” defenseman Brenden Dillon said. “We build off that stuff. Doesn’t matter the amount of Red Bulls or coffee you can drink. You get the national anthem going, you get the jitters.”
Standing inside an empty visiting locker room, Dillon speculated the obvious about San Jose’s slow start. “Looking around, taking everything in, you don’t know if you want to blame it on that, but it was a lot of firsts today for us,” he said. Ordinarily smooth through the neutral zone, the Sharks were unable to sustain any semblance of a forecheck, rendered inert by Pittsburgh’s speed. Even before Rust and Sheary scored 62 seconds apart, the former by following up a rebound and the latter by potting a magical no-look pass from captain Sidney Crosby, San Jose was playing catch-up.
GALLERY: Stanley Cup Final Game 1
“The overall message was just, hey, let’s get back to work,” Dillon said. “We weren’t working in the first period, weren’t using our legs. We almost hoped that maybe they would’ve had some nerves, would’ve turned some pucks over, but here in the Final, teams aren’t going to give you goals.”
Much like the Penguins obliged Sullivan’s pregame request, the Sharks emerged from the first intermission looking much like the high-flyers who still lead the postseason with 3.42 goals per game. Three minutes in, Tomas Hertl put San Jose on the board with a nifty stuff-in on the power play. Later, forward Patrick Marleau, until Tuesday the owner of the NHL record for most playoff games without a Final appearance, caught Murray on a slow post-to-post recovery and wrapped a rebound around to the far side. Jones, meanwhile, was magnificent against 41 shots, more than he had faced in any regulation game this postseason. At least, until he dropped onto his knees, squared up to Bonino, and watched the winning puck square up to his shoulders.
“I think our guys have done a good job of recognizing what we have to get better at and getting it fixed,” San Jose coach Pete DeBoer said. “This isn't going to be easy. You don't get to this point and have any easy nights. We know Game 2 is going to be tough. I think we can be a lot better.”
And yet, the Sharks were still right there, their vaunted power play on the ice and Jones on the bench, Lovejoy in the box and the clock winding down. A quick Pittsburgh clear off the faceoff burned away some time, soon followed by another clear from Hagelin, a third from Eric Fehr, the rangy bottom-six forward signed in free agency last summer, and a fourth from Letang. Aside from Logan Courture’s spin-and-fire wrister from 13 feet that Murray denied, the Sharks did not attempt another shot on goal before two yellow towels fluttered onto the ice, dropping the curtain on a pulse-racing Game 1 befitting the stage.
“I think that’s how it’s going to be,” Dillon said. “It’s as advertised.”