Saturday, June 04, 2016

Pittsburgh Penguins have been frustrating the San Jose Sharks at both ends of the ice


SAN JOSE — Donald Trump’s rally here Thursday night really ought to have been held at the arena emblazoned with SAP, as a beacon to his devotees.

Instead, it was at the convention centre, a 15-minute stroll away from the SAP Center, home of the San Jose Sharks, who wouldn’t mind, while The Donald is making America great again, if he could sprinkle a little of his fairy dust in their direction.
The Sharks, down 0-2 to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup final, badly need to be great again themselves — something more like the squad that dispatched the L.A. Kings in five games and the St. Louis Blues in six — but so far, even pretty good has been out of reach of Los Tiburones, as they are known hereabouts.
Their problem, alas, has a lot to do with Los Pinguinos, who are well on their way to dispelling the accepted wisdom about Eastern teams’ inferiority.
The scoreboard may not reflect it, 3-2 and 2-1 decisions looking less than convincing, but the Sharks are getting trampled by the Penguins’ happy feet.
When the Sharks lost to the Kings in 2013 and 2014 — especially the latter, when they led the first-round series 3-0 and lost the last four games, outscored 12-2 in Games 5-7 — it was like being worn down finally by repeated blows from a blunt instrument.
This isn’t like that.
This is the Sharks suffering from a lethal combination of Pittsburgh speed and commitment. From aggressive forecheck to relentless back pressure, the Penguins have played both ends with equal zest, giving a highly productive offensive hockey club almost zero time to make a play that doesn’t look either desperately rushed or borderline panicked.
Every pass and shot is contested, every Penguin who plays the puck pays a physical price … it is modern hockey, a clinic of what Mike Babcock has labelled the 200-foot game (patent pending).
“What we’ve really liked is just our overall team defence,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said Thursday, in an off-day conference call with reporters.
“It’s not just about playing in our end zone, it’s about our puck-pursuit game up the ice. I think we’re best when we’re defending 180 feet from our net, where we’re forcing our opponents to have to make plays under pressure, limiting zone time, keeping our gaps tight.”
Speed is one thing — the Sharks must have been prepared for that — but few saw coming the excellence of a very ordinary-sounding Pittsburgh defence corps, which consists of one legitimate star, Kris Letang, and five labourers, none of whom would be better than a No. 4 on a first-class blueline corps.
But the Sharks have been unable to expose them in the same way the Penguins have created chaos in the San Jose end when either Marc-Edouard Vlasic or Brent Burns isn’t on the ice, and sometimes even when they are.
“I think they’ve done a great job as a group of six,” Sullivan said of his blueliners. “They really have been our unsung heroes. They go back for pucks, they take hits, they make plays, they help us get out of our end zone, defending extremely hard, blocking shots.
“I think they’re doing a lot of those thankless jobs that don’t necessarily show up on the score sheet or it’s difficult to quantify in a statistic. They just help teams win.”
Throw in rookie goalie Matt Murray, unflappable and brimming with confidence, and Sidney Crosby playing at the top of his game, and rookie shooters Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary scoring like all-stars, and everything has gone the Penguins’ way through two games.
They have the Sharks so frustrated, Joe Thornton is trying to pick fights with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and Logan Couture, one of the leaders of the Sharks’ second wave, is accusing Crosby of cheating on faceoffs.
Actually, what Crosby is doing is playing better than anyone else right now, with such a high level of pure effort, his teammates are compelled to join in.
The Sharks’ chief consolation to this point is that not all the games are played in Pittsburgh. They are 7-2 at the Shark Tank in this post-season, so even though teams that jump out to a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven Cup final are batting .898 at closing the deal, the Sharks can always cling to the old axiom that is dear to the heart of every team that ever tried to claw its way back.
You know the one: The series doesn’t start until the home team loses a game.
“We’ve got another level and we’re going to have to find it here,” San Jose captain Joe Pavelski after Game 2. “It goes to this next game. They’ve done their job here at home, but we’ve got to go win the next one.”
It sounds simple enough, not unlike the slogan on Donald Trump’s ball cap, which is selling at the kiosk across the street for only $19.95, plus tax.
The words are easy. Delivering on them is harder.

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