A Sharks season few thought could go this far ended one game too soon, as San Jose fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final at home on Sunday.
In winning their fourth championship in franchise history, the Penguins denied the Sharks their first Stanley Cup, controlling a series in which San Jose led for a total of just 133 seconds.
A second place ribbon is all the Sharks have to show for their most impressive playoff run in franchise history. It wasn’t for lack of effort though, at least in Game 6.
Head coach Peter DeBoer said:
“I’m very proud of our group. Our guys emptied the tank, gave us everything they possibly could. We weren’t as good as them during this two week period.”
The Sharks skated with a sense of desperation, playing — as usual — from behind. For several stretches in the first and second periods, they buzzed, swarmed and pressured the Penguins, but could not find the equalizer.
San Jose’s third period, though, was dismally fruitless. A power play early in the period yielded no shots, as Pittsburgh muzzled one of the NHL’s most lethal power plays to just one goal in 11 opportunities in the series. The Sharks had just two shots in their final period, and put zero pressure on goal in the final minutes.
An empty-net goal by Patric Hornqvist gave Pittsburgh a 3-1 lead and iced the game with 62 seconds remaining.
In the locker room, the Sharks offered terse, solemn responses, knowing there would be no more games to prepare for.
Logan Couture was asked about the lackadaisical third period:
“Not good enough. We didn’t get shots through from the point. We didn’t get enough shots on goal.”
Joel Ward, who signed as a free agent before the season, lamented:
“It’s just an unbelievable group. Right from Game 1, it felt like it was something special. Put in a lot of time, lot of hard work, travel. It’s just disappointing.”
Martin Jones did just about everything but spin on his head to keep the Sharks in the game, making one miraculous save after another. His spectacular right pad stop on Nick Bonino early in the second period and his denial of a two-on-one break by Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz were just two of many on the night that had the crowd chanting “Jones-y, Jones-y!”
DeBoer marveled at what his goaltender accomplished:
“One of the all-time best goaltending performances in the Final ever. He was sensational every game we played. Gave us a chance to compete and get it to six games.”
Jones’ heroics went for naught, as Kris Letang‘s go-ahead goal in the second period held up as the game-winner.
Logan Couture had evened the score at 1-1 minutes earlier for the Sharks at the 6:27 mark of the second period, as San Jose finally broke through after a fast start to the frame. Couture’s wrist shot on the rush slid under the pads of Matt Murray and in to put the Sharks on the board.
But 79 seconds later, the Penguins answered to quiet the raucous crowd. A strong shift in response to the goal ended Letang’s score — Letang caught Jones in a poor position and finished off a pass from Crosby behind the net.
DeBoer thought the Sharks’ failure to grab control of the game in the second period was what cost them:
“That was probably the difference in the game tonight. When it mattered, they cranked it up. They were just deeper and a little bit better.”
The Penguins outshot the Sharks 27-19 on the night, stifling the crowd’s energy. Brent Burns expressed remorse for not rewarding the fans the Stanley Cup they’ve waited decades for:
“This is such an incredible city to play in. [The fans are] unbelievable. They’ve been unbelievable all year. The last month and half, it’s just another level in this building. They wanted it just as bad as us. It’s tough not to do it.”
After a quiet start, the Penguins drew the game’s first power play, a tripping call on Dainius Zubrus after Sidney Crosby’s line pressured the Sharks’ fourth line. The result was a goal less than 30 seconds into the man advantage, as Brian Dumoulin deftly avoided a sliding Melker Karlsson at the point, and his slap shot went in past the blocker of Jones.
The Penguins scored the first goal in all but one game in the series, which Joe Thornton said wound up being the main difference:
“Their ability to get out in front and score that first goal probably ended up hurting us in this series.”
The game opened up from there, as the Sharks pressured the Penguins but couldn’t find a clean scoring chance. Ward thought he had a breakaway opportunity midway through the period until Chris Kunitz broke it up with a diving poke check.
Jones kept it at a one-goal deficit by fending off a flurry of Penguins’ chances later in the period, stoning both Crosby and Conor Sheary from point blank. As he did in Game 5, Jones bailed the Sharks out of several poor turnovers, including an egregious giveaway in by Couture his own zone.
The Penguins’ win proves a 3-1 deficit in the Stanley Cup Final is almost impossible to overcome; the last time a team has come back and won was in 1942, when the Maple Leafs defeated the Red Wings.
The Sharks put themselves in a hole when they dropped Game 4 at home last Monday, but they stayed alive to force a Game 6 with a 4-2 win in Pittsburgh Thursday.
Valiant playoff effort aside, the Sharks took no solace in finishing as the runner-ups. Couture said:
“I want to win. I can’t [find bright spots], really. Honestly, I can’t. I’m disappointed that we lost. Unless you win it all, you can’t sit back and say, ‘Wow, that was a great season. You want to win.’”
DeBoer struck a different tone, hoping that as time goes on, this team will get the credit it deserves:
“This is a very hard point to get to, as people in this area know. It’s been 25 years. Once the rawness of this wears off, hopefully those guys will be celebrated for what they did accomplished.”
Patrick Marleau, who has spent his entire 19-year career with the Sharks, knows full well how difficult it is to make a deep playoff run. Though his career may be winding down, he expressed optimism that this year’s experience could kickstart one or more chances at an elusive Cup:
“It helps knowing that you’ve done it once before and that you can find the special group, put in the right work, have the right guys and timing. It can happen again.”