Penguins One Win Away From Fourth Stanley Cup

When asked of what’s expected of him in a bounce back performance from a Game 3 overtime loss on Saturday, Penguins goaltender Matt Murray gave an answer that we have come to expect from the calm, 22-year old rookie. “I didn’t play all that bad [in Game 3].” Against a Sharks team that was looking to make the series a best-of-three, the Thunder Bay, Ontario native had to be even better.

Penguins One Win Away From Fourth Stanley Cup

In the opening stanza, the contest looked like a pivotal game 4 of a best-of-seven series. Each team did not have a shot on goal until Joe Thornton uncorked a slap shot with Joe Pavelski going to the goal for a rebound inside four minutes. Pittsburgh did not have their first shot until the seven minute mark when they got a glorious opportunity. With Justin Braun, Joonas Donskoi, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic puck watching Brian Rust behind the net, the rookie fed Brian Dumoulin charging into the slot from the left point. Martin Jones was equal to the task, fresh off of his 40-save performance in Game 3.

However, on the next shift, Phil Kessel brought the puck back into the zone and drifted into the right circle, firing the puck for a rebound. That rebound came out right to Ian Cole moving in from the right point, and he made no mistake for his first ever Stanley Cup Playoff goal 7:36 into the game. Despite winning 11 of the first 13 face-offs and outshooting the Pens 8-6 in the period, they could not answer Cole’s tally through the first 20 minutes.

The second period started off quite like its predecessor, with each team being cautious in getting pucks deep the first 1:30. A big opportunity would soon present itself for the visitors nearly a minute later with Melker Karlsson tripping Eric Fehr off the face-off in the offensive zone. It would take Pittsburgh just nine seconds to convert. Sidney Crosby, who won just one of seven draws in the first period, made this duel count by winning it back to Kris Letang. He played catch with Kessel, who moved into the left circle looking for one thing: Evgeni Malkin‘s stick. The Magnitogorsk native was parked at the far side of Jones’s net waiting for the puck and battling for position, and ultimately the puck found his blade and slid over the line. It was Malkin’s first goal in six games and fifth of the playoffs to give the Penguins a 2-0 lead in the Shark Tank.

From there, the Pens just seemed like to hungrier team, preventing the Sharks from getting a shot on Murray for over nine minutes and hitting two goalposts on back-to-back shifts. They finished the stanza with seven shots to four for San Jose. The biggest chance for the home team came when Nick Spaling hit the crossbar after coming out of the corner with under six minutes to play. Shortly after, Letang gave the puck away to Logan Couture and Murray bested him with the shoulder pad. Failing to convert on their second man advantage of the contest with just over two minutes left, the Sharks were looking at a two-goal deficit in their building going into the biggest 20 minutes of the franchise’s history.

The desperation was felt from the first drop of the puck with opportunities coming soon after for San Jose. Couture finessed a pass to 19-year Shark Patrick Marleau for a mini breakaway, but steady and calm as they come, Murray denied him. Pavelski, without a goal in this series after leading the playoffs the first three rounds with 13, tried to bury a pass from Thornton behind the net, but got the same result as his teammates: Murray’s paraphernalia. Head coach Peter DeBoer, already putting Couture, Pavelski and Thornton together, decided to change up his “fourth” line by putting Spaling with Chris Tierney and Karlsson. The latter change paid off. Eight minutes into the third, Karlsson found a loose puck in the slot recently blocked in front of the net. He turned around, fell down, and got his blade on the puck and powered a wrister to the goal. With Murray struggling to find it, he found daylight on his far side to cut the lead in half with his fourth goal of the postseason making up for his tripping penalty last period.

The Sharks had one of their biggest leads in the shot department halfway through the third getting nine shots through to just three for a high octane Pittsburgh attack that outshot them 113-74 through the first three games. Pavelski would get yet another chance to play hero after Murray misplayed the puck behind the net. The puck came in front, roughly in the same position he had been stopped before, and his frustrations continued.

Thus started a methodical defensive effort by Pittsburgh that saw them clear pucks out and block rubber going to their goaltender. Nick Bonino, who leads all forwards in blocked shots this postseason, performed the act when his team was called for icing with 2:52 left. Head coach Mike Sullivan trusted his group on the ice and did not use his time out, and the ensuing face-off resulted in a shot towards Murray that never got there because of #13’s sacrifice again. Matt Cullen, who played with Crosby and Patric Hornqvist in the last shifts of the game for defensive purposes, got a huge scoring chance with just over two minutes left when he dragged the puck past a diving Brent Burns and fired a shot into Jones’s chest. It would only take 15 seconds for the Pens to come back on the attack again.

After an intercept along the wall in the neutral zone, Hagelin patiently waited for a passing lane to open up as he crossed the blueline. He found one in the form of an oncoming Eric Fehr, another man deployed by Sullivan to play defense. However, he found his offensive touch, charging into the slot, catching the pass, and launching a missile into the top right corner of the net by Jones’s glove with 2:02 left to make it 3-1. It was Fehr’s first point in nine games and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

The insurance marker iced the game for the visitors, who suddenly found themselves with a 3-1 series lead going back to Consol Energy Center where a very special guest will join them at some point in the building. Lord Stanley’s Cup will be in attendance in the corridors of the arena in case a celebration is necessary for its appearance. Of all the Penguins Stanley Cup-clinching victories, none have come on home ice. 1991, it was in Minnesota, the home of the then-North Stars. 1992, Chicago Stadium, the home of the Blackhawks. 2009? Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena in a Game 7 triumph. In 2016, the Penguins could make some history in their relatively new home come Thursday night.

One group of men is 60 minutes from a Cup, and the other is 60 minutes from letting it fall through their grasp having to go through another handshake line.

What a rewarding and cruel journey the Stanley Cup Playoffs is.

Quote courtesy of Sportsnet
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