Despite 2-0 deficit, happy-go-lucky Sharks still have swagger

ByPierre LeBrun ESPN logo
Saturday, June 4, 2016

PITTSBURGH -- The hooting and hollering just outside the visitors' dressing room around 7 p.m. ET on Wednesday emanated from a soccer game in the hallway. The players involved sounding like a relaxed and happy bunch as Game 2 approached.

That relaxed body language and spirit has defined theSan Jose Sharks throughout these Stanley Cup playoffs. They seem like a bunch of guys who are having the greatest time of their lives and remain unaffected by the pressure at hand.

Well, that's going to be tested now.

A 2-1 overtime loss Wednesday night to thePittsburgh Penguinsput the Sharks in their deepest hole this spring.They are now down 2-0 in the Stanley Cup finals, and we'll soon find out if they can stay as confident and loose as they've been for most of the past two months.

The series, and the season, will essentially be on the line Saturday in Game 3 in San Jose, where the Sharks need a home victory to avoid falling into the abyss of a 3-0 deficit.

"We've got another level and we're going to have to find it here," captain Joe Pavelski said in a quiet Sharks dressing room after Game 2. "It goes to this next game. They've done their job here at home, but we've got to go win the next one."

That was the message after the game among the players in the Sharks' dressing room before the doors opened to the media. The Shark Tank awaits, where the team is 7-1 in these playoffs.

All is not lost.

"Got to take care of things at home. That's what was said. 'Let's go home and do what they did here,''' said defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

The home crowd can't make the Sharks faster, however. Somehow, during the two off-days before Game 3, San Jose has to figure out how to better implement its cycle game and spend more time in the offensive zone. That cycle game was nearly nonexistent for the two opening periods Wednesday night before reappearing, finally, in the third period when Justin Braun tied the game.

But if we're going to be realistic here, we've only seen Sharks hockey for about two out of the six-plus periods they've played so far in the Cup finals.

"They're a fast team ... we just have to find a little bit more space out there," said Sharks goalie Martin Jones, who was solid again. "It just doesn't seem like there's a lot of space, for whatever reason, in the offensive zone. ... Coaches will go through it tomorrow and we'll figure it out.''

For starters, all those clean breakouts we got used to seeing in the opening three rounds out of the Sharks D-zone, the way in which theLos Angeles Kings and St. Louis Bluesin particular couldn't generate any forecheck becausethat quick and smooth exit by San Jose's blue-liners, well, that's definitely not the case here in the Cup finals so far.

The speedy Penguins are very much getting on the nerves of the Sharks' defense and forcing mistakes.

"We can't be turning the puck over like we are,'' said Sharks center Logan Couture. "It's tough. We're not supporting each other. Leaving our D-men alone. That's how turnovers happen.''

A Sharks team that enjoyed that speed edge on the Blues in the conference finals has less time to think out there.

"It's still on us: clean breakouts and good gap," said Braun. "That's a lot of it. If they're coming that hard and we can pass around them and get by them, that'll kind of slow them down a bit.''

At the other end of the ice, even when the Sharks do get chances, they're not getting a lot of clean looks. The beleaguered Penguins blue-line corps, which has been singled out all season, continued to do its job, limiting time and space on the Sharks forwards through two games.

"They swarm," Couture said of the Penguins' defensive zone coverage. "All teams do it in the D-zone. They put five guys in one quadrant in one area. It's up to us to break it. You have to move your feet and get out of there and create space. We haven't been doing that. We've been stagnant, and standing around giving them time to check us. They stick us and the puck is out of their zone.''

A few extra power plays would help their cause, too.

The NHL's most dangerous power play has had but three over two games.

"Yeah, it's low. It is low," said Vlasic, who then paused. "Could we have had more? Absolutely. Did we deserve more? I don't know, it's not for me to decide. We just got to capitalize on the one or two opportunities we're going to get every night.''

Blues captain David Backes told before the Cup finals that if Pittsburgh could hold San Jose to two or three power plays a game, it would be a huge factor in the series.

Holding the Sharks to three overall through two games? That is downright gigantic.

It's just another reason to get frustrated if you're the Sharks. But frustration is not the emotion a team down 2-0 in the Cup finals needs to harp on.

So we'll know after puck drop Saturday evening if those happy-go-lucky Sharks are back, their swagger restored, their intention to make this a long series a realistic hope and not a pipe dream.

"I think we still have another level," said Pavelski. "They're playing at a pretty good pace right now, but we can definitely do better."

They have to be.