Don't blink! Pittsburgh Penguins' Game 1 win over the San Jose Sharks was played at warp speed

ByPierre LeBrun ESPN logo
Tuesday, May 31, 2016

PITTSBURGH -- Sit back and get ready to love this series.

Because if Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals was any indication, we're in for a royal treat, with two transition teams built on speed and skill giving the sport of hockey one unreal sales job over the next two weeks.

The Pittsburgh Penguins' 3-2 win over the San Jose Sharkson Monday night was played at warp speed -- the third-period buzzer leaving you gasping for air, if you were fortunate enough to be inside a loud Consol Energy Center.

Imagine what it was like for the players.

"Yeah, considering the situation, you've got to be sharp," said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who seemed to have rocket fuel in his skates. "You can't hesitate, you can't have a misstep where somebody loses an edge or you're not quite on your guy. There's so much speed out there, they're going to get a chance. I think everyone felt it out there tonight, that it was another level, as to be expected here."

One could also argue Game 1 was representative of what we're going to see in this series, with both teams trying to impose their wills and each taking turns in dictating long stretches.

"Yeah, I think that's fair," said Sharks star center Joe Thornton. "You're going to see momentum changes. That's what you saw tonight. They started with the momentum, then we took it back, and obviously with that third goal, they grabbed it. But that's the game. It's all about momentum."

The Sharks sandwiched one great middle period between two owned by the Penguins. In all three, the team with the edge carried the puck-possession battle and offensive-zone time.

That's going to be the name of the game in this championship series.

Crosby agreed.

"It's exactly what both teams want to do," he said. "You see in the second, they got to it and we were on our heels and they generated some offense. There's going to be swings of momentum, it's going to happen, it's whoever can kind of get to it more often. That's our game, and if they do get some long end-zone time, we've got to find ways to get it out of our end and get in their end."

Both teams want the puck, of course, but what they do with it differs at times. The Penguins are so dangerous at creating chances off the rush and on the counterattack off turnovers. When they can make it a track meet -- like they did in the first period and somewhat in the third period -- the Sharks are going to be in trouble.

But when San Jose gets control the puck and sets up shop on the cycle in the Pittsburgh's zone -- like it did for most of the second period, when it erased a 2-0 deficit to tie the game -- that's Sharks hockey.

And that will be the tug-of-war in this series.

"They're a fast team," said Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer. "They dictated play in the first. I thought when we played our game in the second, they had trouble with us. It's the first game of the series. It reminds me a lot of St. Louis, Game 1. I know we're going to get better. Our execution's got to get better. Part of it was some of the pressure they put on, but part of it was self-inflicted."

The Sharks were blown out of the water in the opening period, looking very much like a team playing their first-ever Stanley Cup finals game, jitters and all. They were outshot 15-4, but thanks to goalie Martin Jones, only down two goals after the first.

"I think we dipped our toe in the water instead of playing like we can," said Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon. "You obviously saw the push they had. We had to have known that was going to come; getting in on forechecks, off the rush, they made a couple of plays early. If it wasn't for Jonesy, it could have been even three or four [goals] in the first period, the way things were going."

The 41 shots that the Sharks gave up Monday were their most in regulation time during these playoffs. (They allowed 45 in the triple-overtime loss to theNashville Predatorsin the second round.) Otherwise, you have to go back to March 7 inCalgary to find the last time they gave up more than 40 shots, a span of 36 games overall.

"I thought Jones was good," said Penguins center Matt Cullen. "He made some big saves. I thought that we created a lot of opportunities. We did a good job for the majority of the game of putting a lot of rubber on him and trying to get rebounds, but he was up to the challenge. He was good. But there are times when you're like, 'Man, I would love to see some of those go in.' That's an example of where you can't get too fine. You have to just continue to shoot pucks, shoot pucks and not look for something better."

If there's a real positive out of this Game 1 loss for the Sharks, it's that the 26-year-old Jones looked absolutely poised, like it was just a mid-February affair. He wasCarey Price-like in his calmness, frankly. That bodes well for San Jose.

"We expect that of him. He's been great for us all year," said star Sharks blueliner Brent Burns.

"Jonesy has been a rock back there all year," Dillon added. "We obviously want to limit as many shots as we can. They've got good players over there, they've got high-end players, those guys are going to get opportunities. I think it's just limiting the risk ones, the ones down the pipe or breakaways. In the first period, we gave up way too many odd-man rushes, a couple of breakaways; that's not like us. I think you can count maybe on one hand the amount we had in the three series prior.

"For whatever reason, they caught us off guard, and now we know what we have to do to be successful going forward."

The question, however, is whether the Sharks can play Sharks hockey for three periods. That would imply that the Penguins will allow that to happen.

The truth of the matter is that I don't think any team will dominate the other for an entire game in this series. There are going to be stretches on each side with the hope the final break falls your way, as it did Monday night, when Nick Bonino was left all alone in front with 2:33 left to score the winner.

"It's one game, but I think we did a lot of good things," said Crosby, easily the game's most impactful player on this night. "First and third, we were really strong, generated a lot of chances. We saw a lot of their strengths, especially in the second, with how good they are at getting pucks to the net and holding on to pucks down low. They play pretty fast. Just two teams who want to get to the exact same game."

Bring us six more games of this, please.

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