A week and a half ago, in this space, I made a prediction which now looks remarkably foolish: I expected the San Jose Sharks to win the Stanley Cup in six games over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Alas, that event does not seem to be in the cards.
I’m not the type to give up on a team just because they’re down 3-1 in a series; after all, we just witnessed the Golden State Warriors come back from that same deficit to overcome an Oklahoma City Thunder team that features two legit superstars and move on to the NBA Finals, where they are currently dancing their way through a soft, jelly-like substance that observers swear was once LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
However, the Sharks do not have the pedigree of the Warriors–and that, friends is the problem. Basically, what has happened is that the Sharks, at the worst possible moment, have reverted from the tough, opportunistic team that plowed through the first three rounds of the playoffs back into…let’s face it…the San Jose Sharks: a team that has a history of coming up small in the big postseason moments.
They haven’t been that far off; each of the games has been close, and one is tempted to claim that with a little more or better effort it would be the Sharks in the lead and not the Penguins. After all, the Pens’ late goal in Game 1 was a killer, and in many ways totally changed the dynamic of the series after the Sharks had come back to tie that game. Who knows how the series might have gone if it had been San Jose that had scored a game-winner in those last moments or overtime?
But the plain truth is, Pittsburgh has just been better all over this series, and there’s little reason to believe there would have been any different results up till now, or that there will be different results going forward.
The Pittsburgh Penguins: Happy, and on the verge
The most notable thing about these games has been the simple fact that, with the star players being largely canceled out on both sides, it’s been Pittsburgh’s rookies who have been just a bit better than San Jose’s rookies. That, and the simply atrocious (at times) play of San Jose’s defense. (If there’s one takeaway from this series, it’s that San Jose should use their first pick in the upcoming draft to take the best available defenseman–and maybe a few more picks after that.) Pittsburgh has kept the pressure on throughout each game, putting a lot of weight in their offensive zone and effectively preventing the Sharks from doing the same.
I expected Martin Jones to frustrate the Pens’ offensive stars, to San Jose’s benefit, but in fact it’s been the other way around, with Matt Murray stoning the Sharks’ offense while his forwards made the opportunistic plays to get the key goals. While Jones has been good, Pittsburgh’s front liners have not been getting frustrated; they’ve simply stayed with the program until the inevitable chance to break through comes.
Conversely, San Jose’s offense has been breaking down all over the place. Their attempts to enter the offensive zone have been consistently weak, they’ve been ineffective in establishing possession in the zone when they do get in, and they’re doing nothing to get Murray moving side to side in his crease; he has swallowed up almost every good scoring chance the Sharks have had because he’s been in position to make the save almost every time. Murray has been way too comfortable back there for the Sharks to have ever had a chance to get much going.
All of the above points to great coaching by Mike Sullivan, and not so great coaching by Peter DeBoer. I hate to say it, given how effectively he has led the team up till now this spring, but DeBoer has not made the adjustments the team has needed to turn things around and get the Sharks in a better position–like, for instance, with an actual lead at any time during the series.
Most likely, this means that the Penguins will hoist the Stanley Cup on Thursday. So be it if it works out that way; they’ve done everything they needed to earn that result. I will still hope, however, that the Sharks will pull themselves together and at least deny Pittsburgh the opportunity to win the thing at home. Take Game 5, get back home down 3-2, and see what happens. That would make for a much better series than we’ve seen so far, and ultimately, that’s about all fans can ask for at this point.