By Emily Van Buskirk (@emilnem) & Dillon Friday (@noclassfriday)
The 2016 Stanley Cup Final has been exciting for fans of both franchises — overtime goals, Metallica riffs, Beast Mode intros and more Sidney Crosby than you could possibly handle. With the Pittsburgh Penguins currently leading the series 3-1 heading into Game 5, the San Jose Sharks must do the impossible to prolong the series: win on the road and steal the Penguins' shot at finally securing the Cup on their home turf.
San Jose has been chasing Pittsburgh from the start, failing to secure a lead in any of the four games played thus far. It is a strange feeling for the men in teal, with the struggle in large part coming from veteran players such as Joe Pavelski, who has failed to score a goal in the championship series despite leading the Sharks in regular-season (38) and playoff goals (13). The Penguins have been taking advantage of the Sharks' slow starts, with solid play from Conn Smythe Trophy contenders Sidney Crosby and rookie goalkeeper Matt Murray. Can the Sharks use desperation to turn the tide, or will the Pens win out?
Here are five players to watch during Game 5’s survival of the "lit-est."
Sharks Right Wing Joonas Donskoi
The Finnish menace scored perhaps the biggest goal of the series in Game 3, aiding the Sharks in bouncing back from two straight road losses and securing San Jose’s first ever Stanley Cup victory on home ice.
"It's game in, game out different guys stepping up to the plate," said center Joe Thornton of the rookie’s score after the game. "It was huge he scored. Some clutch goals. He's always around the puck. He always wants the puck."
Donskoi, fondly referred to as “Donk,” has played in all 22 postseason games, scored six goals (two of which were game winners), dished off six assists and recorded 32 shots on goal. His eagerness for the puck and youthful exuberance may just help the Sharks overtake the Pens and bring the Final back home for Game 6 at the SAP Center.
Penguins Center Evgeni Malkin
People forget that although Sidney Crosby, at 21 in 2009, became the youngest captain in NHL history to lift the Stanley Cup, it was Evgeni Malkin who skated away with the Conn Smythe Trophy that year. And with good reason. Malkin scored 36 points in 24 games as the Penguins defeated the Detroit Red Wings to win their third title.
That Malkin, the one who scored at will and briefly took over his teammate Crosby and rival Alex Ovechkin as the best player in the world, is gone. Injuries have robbed him of regular-season time, and at 29, he no longer plays with the abandon of his younger self. Malkin was something like hockey’s version of Russell Westbrook. At times he would collect the puck at his own goal line and play one-on-five the whole way down the rink. He was mesmerizing.
Now, it looks like Malkin has comfortably taken a supporting cast role with Pittsburgh. The Penguins have relied more on speed and depth than their two superstars to put themselves within one win of a fourth Stanley Cup. But at some point, Malkin needs to be a difference maker the same way Crosby was in Games 1 and 2. Maybe he’s heating up at the right time. After going scoreless for the first three contests, Malkin scored a power-play goal and added an assist in Pittsburgh’s 3-1 victory in Game 4.
For all of the posts San Jose has hit and the goals that Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton haven’t scored, the Sharks still haven’t seen a full-throttle Malkin. If that changes Thursday night, watch out. The Bay Area will have to wait, oh, say, two days for its coveted championship.
Sharks Right Wing Joel Ward
First off, Ward wears No. 42 to honor Jackie Robinson, which automatically makes him our guy. He is one of the few black players in the NHL, a mantle he clearly wears proudly. The funny thing about Ward is that he is a rookie player in a veteran body, meaning he has the drive, physicality and endurance of a young gun but the mentality and ice savvy of a seasoned veteran (which he is). He is a leader and has a reputation of coming up big in playoffs, something the Sharks desperately need right about now. He did it in Nashville and again in Washington.
With the Sharks, Ward has collected six points (five goals, one assist) in his last five games. Four of his seven playoff goals have come in the third period, and three of seven have either tied or won the game (and a series with apologies to Boston). Also, fun fact: The Sharks are 4-0 when Ward scores a goal this postseason. So watch out for one of his signature Fulton Reed slap shot goals to get the Sharks in gear.
Sharks Goaltender Martin Jones
The San Jose goalkeeper has been the real MVP of this championship series. Seriously, Jones is a bionic netminder. Through 22 games, the most any Sharks goaltender has played in the postseason, Jones holds a .920 save percentage. In Game 3 of the Final, he stopped 40 of 42 shots, marking the second time in the series he had to face 40+ shots in a single game. He is quick to shut down angles and stays very sharp on his corners, frustrating opposing attackers and giving his defense a chance to catch up.
Jones’ ability to fend off the Penguins' onslaught of shots has kept the Sharks in all four of the Final games thus far but has yet to completely inspire his attack men to many goals of their own. If he can get some help from the guys up front, there is no doubt the Sharks would have an edge on Pittsburgh.
Penguins Goaltender Matt Murray
There’s been an element of “here we go again” that has crept into Pittsburgh’s playoff run. It’s most notably been found in net. Take, for example, Game 3. The Penguins led late in the third period, only to lose the game thanks to two soft goals. Say what you will about Donskoi’s game-winner, but Matt Murray, the rookie who has been exceptional at times, was in poor position for the shot. He was down as Donskoi circled to the net, almost as if the goalie didn’t know NHL players shoot from there at times. And given his experience, or lack thereof, he may very well not have known.
When Murray, 22, has faltered, it’s been a lack of concentration. Ward’s straight slap shot that tied the game in the third caught him off-guard as well. Similar lapses cost Murray his net during the Eastern Conference Final against Tampa Bay. The erstwhile Marc-Andre Fleury replaced him in Game 5 to middling results, which briefly reopened a goaltending controversy. Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan stuck with his rookie and has been rewarded for it.
Save for Game 3, Murray has played well in the Stanley Cup Final, especially in the third period of Game 4. But you have to wonder what an early goal Thursday might do to Murray's psyche, what that will do to Fleury’s own head and what that will do the Penguins fans’ collective heart rate. A 3-1 lead is a fragile thing in hockey.
Pittsburgh’s goaltending is in safe hands until it’s not.
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