SAN JOSE, Calif. – Four games can feel like a lifetime when you’re facing elimination.
Four games ago, the San Jose Sharks had the best power-play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs at 27 percent efficiency, including a 40-percent conversion rate on home ice.
Four games ago, the Sharks had Joe Pavelski leading the NHL with an astounding 13 postseason goals and Joe Thornton having notched at least a point in 8 of his last 10 postseason games and Brent Burns as a nearly unstoppable force on the blue line.
Four games ago, the San Jose Sharks had scored the first goal in 13 of 18 playoff contests.
What a difference four games against the Pittsburgh Penguins make.
“It’s a loss. Just like the other two losses. It sucks,” said center Logan Couture after the Sharks’ 3-1 defeat to the Penguins on Monday night, which put them in a 3-1 hole in the Stanley Cup Final. “If we lose [another], we’re done.”
Everything that worked no longer does.
The power play is 1-for-8, having failed to covert in two key late-period chances in Game 4.
“I thought we had some decent looks. They’re a good kill. They pressure hard. We’re trying to force things. Force shots. We’re not moving the puck as well as we have in the past,” said Couture. “But if there’s someone on you, that means there's someone else open, and we have to find them.”
The scoring stars have gone quiet. Pavelski didn’t score a goal for the fourth straight game. Thornton didn’t have a point, having gone scoreless in three of the four games. Neither did Burns, who hasn’t tallied a point since his two assists in Game 1. Neither did Patrick Marleau, who is scoreless since his goal in Game 1.
These were the players that guided the Sharks to their first Stanley Cup Final: Four star performers giving star performances at the same time, perhaps the first time in franchise history this has happened. Through four games, they’ve largely been non-factors on the scoresheet.
It’s not without effort. Pavelski had a point-blank shot stopped by Penguins goalie Matt Murray in Game 4. Marleau was stopped twice in the third, including on a breakaway.
“Goal-scoring can go in bunches. And then it can go away,” said Marleau.
Especially when faced with a Penguins’ defense that has smothered them, taking away time, space, shot lanes, confidence, dignity … really, just name it, and the black-and-yellow coats the Sharks have worn all series have denied them of it with their incredible speed on the backcheck.
“You take the pass, make the read, try to make the play and then it’s not there when you’re trying to pull the trigger,” said Pavelski.
Pavelski knows his lack of goals has affected the series. “We’re in the hole we’re in, and one goal here or there changes everything. The way we’re going this postseason, I feel like I should have a little bit more,” he said.
What more can they do?
“Score,” said Couture.
Shoot more, pass more?
“Score. Score on your chances.”
And score first.
The Penguins have done so in all four games, and the Sharks are a different team when they have a chance to establish the tone and tempo of a game with the lead. They’re now 3-6 when the opponent scores first, and 1-4 when trailing after the first period.
“It makes it a little tougher. They’ve played well with the lead so far. All playoffs, when we’ve had the lead, we know what it feels like. We take a little confidence from it,” said Pavelski.
Coach Peter DeBoer said playing from behind messes with the Sharks’ process.
“We've been chasing the game the whole series by not scoring first. That takes you out of your four-line rhythm. It affects all parts of your game,” he said. “We've been on the other end of that in the playoffs where we've jumped out to the lead on some teams and made them change their game.”
So the gameplan for Game 5, back in Pittsburgh on Thursday?
“Score first. Go from there,” said Couture.
“It’s tough when you’re chasing the game. That’s the reality of it. If you fall behind all the time, it’s going to be difficult to win hockey games.”
Here’s the reality of it: The San Jose Sharks are one loss away from elimination. Of falling short in what might be the only chance at the Stanley Cup in the storied careers of Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton. Of falling short of the promises their incredible run through the Western Conference made. Of falling short of giving these fans – my god, these fans – the reward their decades of deafening support should have earned by now.
The fans who proudly wear teal jerseys with name like Nolan, Ricci, Cheechoo, Thornton and Marleau on their backs to the Shark Tank. The fans who have suffered through every imaginable indignity in the playoffs – it was 3-0, remember?
The guy I met here in San Jose who had been waiting for this moment since the days of Pat Falloon. The women with the plastic shark on top of her head, whose father died in 2008, his annual wish to see “the guys finally play for the damn Cup" in San Jose.
“We fee like we let them down,” said Couture after Game 4. “We’re proud of the fan base here. And we hope they’re proud of us. We hope that we're back here."
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