PITTSBURGH — The nerves are gone. Spending your franchise’s first 20 minutes in a Stanley Cup Final standing around while your opponent zips unimpeded from one end of the ice to the other will do that.
The San Jose Sharks insist they’ll be better in Game 2 tonight (5 p.m., NBCSN) against the Pittsburgh Penguins than they were in the opener, when the Western Conference champions wobbled out of the gate and never really had control in a 3-2 loss that spoiled the club’s debut in the NHL’s marquee event after a quarter century wait.
It might have been jitters. It might have been a cross-country trip to face an unfamiliar opponent. Or, maybe the Sharks allowed themselves to briefly get caught up in the moment. Whatever it was, they understand it has to stop if they don’t want to head home in a 0-2 hole that would be difficult to escape.
“The home team played a better game than us,” San Jose coach Peter DeBoer said. “I think we didn’t find a way to get rewarded. The good news was we still had a chance right until the last five minutes to win that game.”
Right up until Nick Bonino’s floating wrist shot from in front with 2:33 remaining slipped by Martin Jones and gave the Penguins the early advantage in the best-of-seven series. It was Pittsburgh’s 41st shot of the night, the most the Sharks have allowed in a regulation playoff game this postseason. That number included 15 in the first period alone as Pittsburgh took a 2-0 lead while San Jose managed all of four on Penguins rookie goaltender Matt Murray.
“I think we were watching,” San Jose defenseman Brent Burns joked Tuesday.
Yet Burns pointed to the Sharks’ aggressive rally in the second period as evidence they can effectively counter Pittsburgh’s speed if they stay tight on the forecheck and pressure the Penguins into sloppy turnovers. Then there was the way Burns tracked down Pittsburgh forward Carl Hagelin, thwarting a breakaway attempt by steering one of the league’s fastest skaters away from danger.
“My legs work too,” Burns said with a laugh.
DeBoer cracked that perhaps Hagelin was at the end of a lengthy shift, his quip symbolic of a team that remains focused but loose. Last the Sharks checked, the first team to win four times gets to raise the Cup. They lost the opening game of the conference finals in St. Louis only to wrap up the series in six games and are 5-1 in the playoffs following a loss.
“We were far from where our game needs to be,” said forward Dainius Zubrus. “I think we realize that.”
The expected track meet between two of the league’s most up-tempo teams failed to fully materialize. There was little flow, the ice instead being tilted heavily one way or the other. Pittsburgh proved effective chipping the puck into the San Jose zone before chasing it down and setting up its offense.
It’s not a stark contrast from the way most of the top teams in the West play. The difference is the Penguins do it with four lines capable of keeping the puck in the offensive zone for extended periods.
“They’re quick guys but there’s so much we normally do that we didn’t,” Zubrus said. “We weren’t quick enough ourselves. We couldn’t get it out of our end quick enough and get to our forecheck.”
As a result, the Sharks did little to make Murray uncomfortable. They only produced 26 shots and were too often one and done.
“No, we weren’t happy with the number of shots,” DeBoer said. “We weren’t happy with the quality of shots. We weren’t happy with the guys who didn’t get enough shots.”
Though Burns continued his torrid postseason by assisting on both San Jose goals to give him 22 points (six goals, 16 assists) in 19 games, he’s well aware his primary job is to keep the opponent on the other side of the San Jose blue line.
“They were making plays when they were over there and if we do what we’re supposed to do, hopefully we don’t allow that the whole time,” Burns said. “We’ve got to play our game.”
The Sharks will have veteran center Patrick Marleau for Game 2 after the NHL’s Department of Player Safety declined to call Marleau in for a hearing to discuss his hit on Pittsburgh’s Bryan Rust in the third period. Marleau was penalized for an illegal check to the head, but that’s all.
“It was a clean hit,” Burns said.