Staring at season’s brink, Sharks return to San Jose

Two games into the Stanley Cup Final and it’s clear the Penguins present challenges unlike any other the Sharks have faced the playoffs, with their speed, skill and matchups.

The Sharks dropped the first two games in Pittsburgh and find themselves trailing 2-0 in a series for the first time in the postseason, with the series shifting to San Jose for Games 3 and 4 — Game 3 is Saturday at 5 p.m. PST.

In a conference call Thursday — an off-day for the team before practicing Friday — head coach Peter DeBoer talked about returning home, matching up with the Penguins and the challenges that lie ahead.

‘Tune out the noise’

Saturday’s game will mark the most important home contest in franchise history for the Sharks, with SAP Center hosting its first-ever Stanley Cup Final game.

The fanfare, coupled with essentially a must-win game, creates pressure that DeBoer implored his players to keep out of their heads:

“There’s a lot of noise. People are going to want to tell you how well Pittsburgh’s playing, how poorly you’re playing, how you have no chance to win. I said we need to tune all that out and make sure we’re ready for Game 3. That’s the only thing that matters right now.”

Any home-ice advantage, though, will undoubtedly be beneficial. In 2012, DeBoer’s only other trip to the Final, his New Jersey Devils dropped the first two games at home to the Los Angeles Kings before losing the series in six games.

He was asked about the importance of the game to the fans:

“It’s very meaningful to the people here. I think we saw the emotion after we won the Western Conference that night … Obviously we’re not coming home under the best circumstances, but we also know that we’re a tough out.”

Line combinations

In Game 2, the Sharks were thoroughly outplayed through the first two periods, prompting DeBoer to switch Patrick Marleau down to centering the third line while bumping up Joel Ward to Logan Couture and Joonas Donskoi’s line. It paid dividends, as the Sharks managed to score a late goal in the third period to force overtime.

But DeBoer was mum about keeping the lines that way for Game 3:

“I liked the response we got in the third period … [The line changes] gave us a little bit of a jolt. One of the combinations found a way to get a goal. I thought the other combinations started to look a little bit more dangerous. We’ll take [Friday], a practice day and come up with some answers.”

Spreading out skilled players would mirror the strategy of Penguins’ head coach Mike Sullivan, who has Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on different lines. The Sharks finished Game 2 with Joe Thornton, Marleau and Couture on separate combinations.

DeBoer said:

“Pittsburgh presents matchup issues for everybody they play. When you get Malkin, Crosby and Kessel on three different lines, that presents matchup issues.”

A different animal

Both Games 1 and 2 have been one-goal games where the final score doesn’t tell the entire story. The Sharks have had neither the possession time nor the offensive-zone production that they used to their advantage against the Kings, Predators and Blues, and goaltender Martin Jones has largely kept them in games.

DeBoer remarked:

“Pittsburgh’s a good team. They’ve shown they’re not a team that you’re going to get in and control large periods of play against them. You’re going to have to wait for your opportunities, you’re going to have to cash in.”

While the Sharks hit a number of posts in Game 2, the scoring chances were few and far between, a stray from their hawkish, control-the-tempo type of play this postseason.

DeBoer doesn’t count on the Penguins letting up, instead counting on his players to take advantage of the chances that come:

“You’ve got to be comfortable taking the opportunities you get, the swings in momentum you get and you’ve got to make sure you cash in on them. Right now we’ve got to do a little better job of that.”

They could also try to avoid overtime, where the Sharks are 0-4 this postseason. In the final minute of Game 2 in a tie-game, Couture, Ward and Donskoi manufactured several prime scoring chances, but failed to convert. It took just minutes in the extra session for the Conor Sheary to seal the win for the Penguins on a set-play executed to perfection. Said DeBoer:

“Obviously, you want to eliminate that margin of error. You don’t want to leave it to chance. You don’t want to leave it to one shot. You want to take control of the game.”

In Game 3, the Sharks will hope to do just that, for the first time in the series.

Notes

DeBoer expects defenseman Justin Braun to be in the lineup for Game 3. Braun’s father-in-law passed away on Monday, and Braun traveled to Atlanta on Thursday to pay his respects. … DeBoer implied Matt Nieto’s stamina suffered after the speedy forward’s return to the lineup from an upper-body injury suffered last month. “I thought he gave us some real good energy early. Like a guy who’s been out for a month, I thought as the game wore on, the reality of being out there that long weighed on him.” … DeBoer declined to comment on Couture’s allegations that Crosby cheats on face-offs and gets away with them “because he’s Sidney Crosby.” … This is the 10th time the Sharks have trailed 2-0 in a playoff series. They have never come back to win a series in their previous nine attempts.