Now, after Saturday night’s thrilling overtime win for San Jose, we have a series for Lord Stanley’s mug and a potential tilt in the Californians favor.
Not only did the Sharks’ Joonas Donskoi’s sudden-death-winner turn the series into a major melodrama, it builds the confidence level at SAP Center in San Jose’s way.
“Beating them at home was huge for us,” reflects Sharks coach Peter DeBoer. “It was the first time we had the lead in this series and it changes the series. Now we have to take care of business in Game 4.”
The 3-2 victory — in the first Final series in the Sharks’ 25-year history — could be a series-turner if DeBoer’s sextet can parlay an egregious Pittsburgh weakness once more in Game 4.
“We want to shoot high and hard at (goalie Matt) Murray,” says veteran forward Joel Ward who tied the game at 2-2 late in the third with a long slapper that Murray blew like a balloon. “I just buried my head,” adds Ward, “and took a slapper.”
But it wasn’t the winner and from that point on a battle of wills, stamina, determination and goaltending would determine the victor.
Remarkably it was the fleet Finn, Donskoi, who delivered the biggie but that would not have been possible had his goaltender, Martin Jones, not starred on several dangerous Penguins attempts.
While Jones made 40 saves, he was especially adroit in the overtime, holding the fort until Donskoi deflated Murray.
“Martin’s confidence gave us confidence,” says Dustin Braun, one of several Sharks heroes.
As we approach Monday’s encounter, the Battle of the Goalies is shaping up as a very possible series-decider.
All things considered, Murray could be Pittsburgh’s downfall as he was on Saturday night and no tepid defense of his goalie by coach Mike Sullivan can change the facts on the ice.
The experts in the booth see it and so do the Sharks.
“Murray’s play was questionable on each of the three goals San Jose scored,” says Mike Milbury, ex-Islanders coach and GM, now an NBC analyst. “On Donskoi’s game-winner, he went down and got beaten over the shoulder on the short side.”
And that is a no-no, especially at so critical a moment.
Not that the Penguins played badly. In fact, they looked like sure winners heading toward the finish line with a one-goal lead before Ward baffled Murray and tied the count at 2-2 midway through the third period.
“We had trouble finding some rhythm,” explained Penguins coach Mike Sullivan.
His aces Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were less noticeable as the game reached overtime, while the Sharks were energized by a frantic, decibel-count-breaking crowd.
“The noise was electric,” enthuses DeBoer, “and I could see that my guys wanted to play hard for them. They were a big help to us.”
As vital as the crowd was, there also was an element of uncertainty going into the sudden death period.
“We were upbeat going into overtime,” adds Ward. “Pretty chilled and relaxed. The trick was that we believed in the process; we knew we had chances and that built our confidence.”
Heading to Game 4, the question now is how much Pittsburgh’s confidence has been reduced by the loss?
“That loss was tough,” Sullivan allows. “Our entries were not as clean as they were (in Pittsburgh). Then again, we had a few near misses (in overtime) and had we scored on them.” Then a pause: “On Monday we have to execute a little bit better.”
San Jose can tie the series in Game 4 by using the successful formula that got them the Game 3 win. To wit:
- HITTING: The Sharks are the bigger, tougher team and punished both Crosby, Malkin and the other Penguins with some devastating checks. Those hits appeared to take a toll on Pitt. More of that on Monday could be decisive in San Jose’s favor.
- CONFIDENCE: For a change, the home club feels good about itself. The fact that Murray has been solved and that his game could be deteriorating is part of the Sharks’ winning equation. That and solid play by Joe Thornton, who produced two assists, and lower-liners such as Donskoi make a positive difference.
- THE CROWD: “It was amazingly loud,” says Thornton, “and we feed off them.”
Neutral media types covering the series were often commenting how intense the decibel count was before, during and after the game. This could be an inspiration to the Sharks in Game 4.
The plot thickens and the likes of Jones and the latest hero, Donskoi, could further turn this already pulsating series around.
“Joonas is the real deal,” concludes DeBoer. “We wouldn’t be here without him.”
And on Monday, if Donskoi plays the way he did in Game 3, the Sharks may be tied two-two in the series with him!