Typically, at this time of year, the Sharks are hitting their vacation spots, watching other teams prepare for the Stanley Cup Finals.
This year, things are a wee bit different, as the Sharks aim for their first championship in their 25-year history. On Saturday morning, they held their final practice in Sharks Ice at San Jose before flying to Pittsburgh for Game 1 at 5 p.m. PDT on Monday.
The Sharks had plenty of history in both the regular season and playoffs against their earlier postseason opponents – the Kings, Predators and Blues. That’s not the case with the Penguins, whom the Sharks have faced just 35 times in 25 seasons since joining the NHL in 1991.
The two teams faced each other twice this season, with each team winning on their opponents’ home ice. But both games came before the Penguins fired head coach Mike Johnston and replaced him with Mike Sullivan, who has a 45-22-5 mark this season, including the playoffs.
Sharks’ head coach Peter DeBoer said the Penguins are not the same team they faced in November and December:
“Different coach, different everything. Obviously, the tendencies of their best players don’t change, whether it’s last November or now. From a team point of view, they’re in a totally different place and I think we are too.”
Speed is the name of the game
The Sharks pride themselves on being a tight-checking, puck-moving, fast-paced team. So does Pittsburgh, setting up for an interesting collision.
The Penguins have speed and skill up and down the lineup. The most noticeable, of course, are Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but the vaunted “HBK line” – Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel – are blazing fast and could wreak havoc even and will keep the pressure on when the Penguins’ two superstars aren’t on the ice.
But the Sharks have shut down the opponents’ best players in the playoffs, limiting the Kings’ Tyler Toffoli, the Predators’ Filip Forsberg and the Blues’ Vladimir Tarasenko to a combined three goals and one assist in 18 games. They shut down Tarasenko in the conference finals until he scored two meaningless goals late in Game 6.
“[The Penguins] are a very fast team. We take a lot of pride in taking away time and space from good players and from fast players. It’s a great challenge for us.”
When asked about going up against Crosby and Malkin, defenseman Brent Burns bluntly responded:
“It’s no different. Every team’s got great players and they’re not different.”
Logan Couture noted the Sharks should try to out-quick the Penguins:
“I think we’re pretty quick as well. Force them to play in the D-zone and use our speed.”
The Sharks will benefit from the anticipated return of Matt Nieto, a speedy forward who has been out since suffering an upper body injury against the Predators in the second round.
“He brings speed. He’s one of our faster forwards. He’s another guy that gives us a little bit of a different dimension and a little bit of a different element.”
‘Establish our identity’
The Sharks took away home-ice advantage from both the Kings and Blues, and are not daunted about starting a playoff series on the road.
Though San Jose lost Game 1 in St. Louis, they dominated from the second period onward and set the tone for convincing wins in Games 2 and 3 to take control of the series.
“You obviously want to win [Game 1], but there’s going to be a little bit of a feeling out – there always is. For me it’s important how we played. Even though we lost Game 1 against St. Louis, I thought we really established our identity in that game starting in the second period. It gave us a sense of confidence going forward that we could play our game and dictate the game if we brought that. I’m looking for that as much as a win.”
Only two Sharks on the roster have been in the Stanley Cup Finals before – forward Dainius Zubrus (with New Jersey and DeBoer in 2012) and goaltender Martin Jones. Only Jones has lifted the cup, backing up Jonathan Quick on the 2013-14 Los Angeles Kings.
So nerves could be an issue, but the Sharks are keyed on remaining calm.
Captain Joe Pavelski spoke about the intense media scrutiny that comes with a trip to the Finals:
“There’s no way to deal with it. You answer the questions as they come. You just understand that the success that you’ve had, you worked hard for … Everyone knows the situation. You’re not looking to change a whole lot this time of year.”
DeBoer, who coached Zubrus and the Devils to the Finals in 2012, said the veteran embodies how to approach big moments:
“There’s no one piece of advice for anybody this time of year that’s going to solve all your issues. I think it’s just, ‘Stay in the moment and do what got you here.’ [Zubrus] lives that. He plays the same way every time he shows up and puts his gear on. I think that’s the best advice you can probably give.”
Or, as Couture stated, it’s just a game:
“For me, it’s the same. Nothing really changes. Even-keeled, go out there and play hockey. It’s a game that I’ve played for a long time. Go out and have fun with it.”