Pittsburgh Penguins regrouping with aim of winning the Stanley Cup in San Jose

ByScott Burnside ESPN logo
Sunday, June 12, 2016

PITTSBURGH, Pa. -- The iron barriers were set up throughout the event level of the Consol Energy Center.

Here's where the families and friends of all the Pittsburgh Penguins were going to assemble to go on the ice to celebrate with the Stanley Cup.

Here's where the media would line up before going out onto the ice to interview the celebrating Penguins.

And then, moments after San Jose Sharks captain Joe Pavelski sent the puck into the empty net to secure a 4-2 victory for the visiting San Jose Sharks in Game 5 on Thursday, NHL staff quickly gathered up the barriers and the signage and packed it away.

What seemed possible if not probable now was no longer an option. Not on this night.

Perhaps those signs will reappear Sunday night (8 ET) when Game 6 will be played in San Jose, the Penguins' series lead now whittled to 3-2.

But their appearance and then sudden disappearance late Thursday night was a reminder of just how close the Penguins were to doing what they'd set out to do and certainly a painful reminder of just how difficult the final step will be if they're to earn their fourth franchise Stanley Cup.

"Would have been nice," offered Pittsburgh defenseman Olli Maatta. "But that's how it goes. It's not going to be easy.

"It's a good team down that end. We know it's not going to be easy and we just got to leave this behind us and focus on Sunday."

So much went so well for the Penguins in Game 5 when so much was at stake, so much seemed to be coming together as though it was meant to be.

Tens of thousands of fans surrounded Consol Energy Center on a bright, sunny day in Pittsburgh in the hopes of being part of the first Stanley Cup won by the home side in Pittsburgh, many gathering early in the day hours before the puck dropped.

Families and friends and of course the Stanley Cup had arrived en masse in town.

And for the most part, the Penguins were again the dominant team.

For the most part.

Perhaps suffering from nerves after having had two days to contemplate the end of the journey, the Penguins were out of sync early and allowed the Sharks their first in-game lead of the series, giving up two goals on the first three shots taken by the Sharks.

Still, even though the Penguins were down 2-0 less than three minutes into Game 5, they regained composure and just as quickly tied the game with two goals in 22 seconds and for a time it looked as though they might simply run the Sharks out of the building.

But it didn't happen that way as Melker Karlsson scored late in the first and it was a goal that would stand up as the winner, even though the Penguins dominated puck possession and scoring opportunities throughout the last two periods.

At the end of the night, the Penguins had more than doubled the Sharks' shot totals, 46-21, and shot attempts, 76-36.

Their best players were dominant, especially captain Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who had, arguably, his best game of the postseason.

But in the end the Penguins could not find a way to get the better of Sharks goalie Martin Jones, who had a monster night and had to reconcile themselves to the idea of packing up for another trip west.

"That's the way the game goes," said Crosby. "Two close teams and both want that win bad. Sometimes you don't get the bounces, but we did a lot of good things."

Someone suggested that if you played this same game 10 times in a row, the Penguins wouldn't come up on the losing end many times.

"Yeah, I'd like to think so," Crosby said. "I think we believe that. I think when you generate that many good quality scoring chances, the power play was working the puck around pretty good, yeah, I think that if we do all of those things and come with the same mindset, understand the situation, and go after them right from the start [we will win]."

And maybe that's the way this series will work out, that the Penguins, who have been the better team for large portions of the series and, of course, were the better team for large portions of Game 5, will win one more game because that's what should happen.

Or maybe this was the game the Penguins were supposed to win.

Certainly, the tens of thousands of fans who dispersed as though by magic outside the arena as it became clear that no celebration would be unfolding in their town Thursday night believed for a long time it was meant to be.

And maybe the Pens themselves believed it themselves.

"We knew they were desperate team, they were going to come hard, and I don't we think we were ready for it," Maatta said. "I think the last 55 minutes was great hockey from us. Just got to bear down. I think we're going to be fine if we play the same way. We just got to keep going."

In the end, no matter the shot totals or the goal posts struck (Phil Kessel hit both posts on a shot in the first but the puck stayed out) or the imbalance in scoring chances and puck possession, the result was the result.

Does the loss throw a hint of doubt into a Penguins team that has showed no signs of weaknesses, no propensity for self-doubt as they have marched to within one game of a championship?

It's hard to imagine it given the unflappable nature of this group. But maybe the Sharks will take something from this improbable win and bring something new to the table in Game 6.

They have been given new life, new hope, and that can be a dangerous thing.

"They were playing to try to get it back home," Crosby said. "I'm sure that was their mindset -- we definitely wanted to close it out here, but it didn't happen and we've got to regroup and make sure we're ready for the next one."

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