For the San Jose Sharks, three issues during the 2016 Stanley Cup Final cost them a chance to force Game 7 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It is hard to point to any one moment in the series when looking for what went wrong for the Sharks. Except for empty net goals, a single goal decided each game in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. The Penguins did a masterful job with their defense, and the offense was just enough to beat the incredible goaltending of Martin Jones. Now that the handshake line has completed, San Jose Sharks fans are left with some “what ifs” that will haunt this franchise. The 2015-16 season will long be remembered Sharks players and fans alike as the one that got away. But did it have to?
The Penguins defense was considered to be the weak link in their Eastern Conference Championship team yet was able to contain one of the most dangerous goal scorers in the league. Joe Pavelski roared into the Stanley Cup Final with a league leading 13 goals. He had been lethal on the power play, with a pass from Joe Thornton to Pavelski stationed in the high slot becoming a reoccurring goal celebration that opposing teams saw repeatedly.
The lack of production on the top line also did not lead to any line juggling to try to get the Sharks regular season goal scoring leader going when goals were at a premium. Could Logan Couture have helped Pavelski get going? Move Patrick Marleau to center to get both he and Pavelski on the scoresheet? Perhaps.
In a series of so many close games, Team Teal fans can only imagine what a couple more Pavelski goals would have done for the Sharks. It was never about the lack of effort from the Sharks captain. Pavelski’s work ethic is legendary and the time he spends honing his craft well documented. But the best players need to make the best plays.
Player Deployment Questioned
Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer waited until Game 5 to make significant changes to the deployment of the Sharks fourth line and the defensive pairing of Roman Polak and Brenden Dillon. The depth and size of these players were a significant part of the Sharks’ ability to emerge from the Western Conference, but against the highly skilled Penguins line-up, they were routinely exposed mostly due to their lack of speed.
In Game 5 while protecting a one-goal lead for more than 50 minutes of the contest, DeBoer significantly cut back on the bottom lines ice time. Polak and Dillon did not see the ice in the final five minutes after being sent out with the Sharks needing a goal in the dying minutes of Game 4.
In Game 6, Polak was on the ice both of Pittsburgh’s first and second period goals and the Sharks bottom pairing was on the ice for an astounding number of shifts in a do-or-die game: 21 for Polak and 22 for Dillon.
Had the Sharks given more ice time to the skilled lines and their top four defensemen starting in Game 1, it could have been a difference maker.
Power Play Lacked Bite
The Sharks on the power play were the best in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs coming into the Stanley Cup Final. Converting on more than 27% of their opportunities with the man advantage, the Penguins’ disciplined play limited San Jose to only 11 opportunities and was a focal point in Pittsburgh’s game plan. From the outside, there did not seem to be any adjustments made to get the power play going. When asked about what was working for the Penguins penalty kill ahead of Game 6, Pittsburgh defenseman Ben Lovejoy stated the simple plan that worked to near perfection:
“I think the biggest part is staying out of the penalty box. They’re lethal on that power play. They have so many guys that can beat you. We have to do our best to play an incredibly disciplined game. That’s a game-changer for them,” said Lovejoy to NHL.com. “We have a plan to try to kill them, but the less time we have to do that, the better.”
Often this is easier said than done. But the disciplined Penguins play simply kept one of the NHL’s special teams units’ chances to a minimum. The lack of power play opportunities, or adjustments on the man advantage, also kept Brent Burns, the Sharks X-factor on the point during the man advantage, from being a key contributor in the series.
The Sharks will not lose any major pieces of their 2015-16 squad this offseason, barring an unforeseen trade or Patrick Marleau waiving his no movement clause. But the road to the Stanley Cup is a long and arduous, and return to the Final can never be expected.