SAN JOSE — Sometimes it really can’t be much fun being an NHL scoring star.
Here’s what happens: You get to the Stanley Cup Final, the ice is either slushy or bouncy, they don’t call any penalties (which frees up the grinders to foul the skilled without consequences), and you’re usually going up against world-class defenders every shift.
Then, if you don’t score, everyone wants to know what’s wrong.
Not a big game player, huh? Can’t handle the big stage, huh? Not willing to go to the tough areas, huh?
The best of the best, of course, shrug all this off as part of the job, and the smartest accept it as part of the huge dollars they command in salary. What helps is that sometimes, like in this Stanley Cup Final, the star scorers of the San Jose Sharks and the Pittsburgh Penguins have all vanished — at least from the scoresheet.
“It’s tough this time of year,” said San Jose coach Pete DeBoer when asked about the lack of production so far from key goal-scorer Joe Pavelski.
“That’s not an easy role to play.”
Usually, the team that loses the previous game is the team having its stars questioned, and so Sunday in Silicon Valley it was all about the scoring woes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins. Crosby, at least, made the faceoff play to win Game 2 and has two assists this series, while Malkin is pointless and was one of two Penguins chasing Joonas Donskoi when the Sharks forward potted the OT winner in Game 3 on Saturday.
“We lead the series 2-1. I’m not scoring much, but I’m trying to help my team in different ways,” Malkin said on Sunday. “I’m trying to score. Maybe tomorrow. I’ll do my best.”
The Sharks, of course, have a pretty stout blue line corps anchored by Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, both of whom were named last week to Team Canada for this fall’s World Cup of Hockey 2016. The Pens had lots of shots in Game 3, including two by Malkin, but not enough good ones. They only got one power play as a result of a standard of officiating that could generously be called ‘curious,’ and it came in the third minute of the first period.
“It’s hard to get any rhythm on the power play when you only have one or two a game,” said winger Patric Hornqvist. “(In Game 3) it was like we didn’t have any.”
For Malkin, folks tend to remember the spring of 2009 — perhaps his finest stretch of hockey in the NHL — when he had 36 points in 24 playoff games and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as he and the Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup.
That was seven years ago and he’s skated a lot of miles since. He’s 29 now. Scoring in the NHL has been suffocated in general and he managed to participate in only 57 games this season because of injuries, registering 58 points.
Donskoi leads all scorers in the Final with three points. In that Cup Final against Detroit seven years ago, Malkin had a goal and three assists in the first three games of a series that wasn’t much more wide-open than this one and ended up with a pair of 2-1 games in the final two matches.
Smartly, he opted to credit San Jose with stout defence in this series rather than issuing a sad lament about his own shortcomings or questioning the officiating.
“It’s the best defensive team in the league,” said Malkin. “They play one-on-one in the D-zone, and they play so close to you it’s tough to beat them one-on-one. But we have to try. Not pretty goals, but we have to score.”
Head coach Mike Sullivan went a little bit further.
“He’s been a big part of our playoff success, but I know there’s another level that he has to help us win,” said Sullivan.
San Jose’s triumph in Game 3 prevented the possibility of a sweep, and kept alive the possibility that the Penguins might be able to be the first Pittsburgh pro squad to win a championship at home since Bill Mazeroski’s big belt for the Pirates in 1960.
The ice was bad in Pittsburgh for Games 1 and 2 and worse in San Jose, which completely limits the ability of the two teams to play with much skill or imagination. It’s all straight ahead, stay-away-from-anything-risky stuff.
The Penguins blocked 38 shots in Game 3, an astounding number, but an indication that they understand it’s a great deal more productive to lie in front of a slapshot than attempt a cross-ice pass. Just the facts.
“The teams are learning a little more about each other every game,” said Crosby. “You see the desperation getting a little higher every game.”
We might get one blowout — the Red Wings beat the Penguins 5-0 in one game back in the ’09 Final — but otherwise it looks like it’s going to be tight and low-scoring the rest of the way.
Under these hot, penalty-free conditions, even if Kay Whitmore’s slimmed-down goalie gear was suddenly forced upon Matt Murray and Martin Jones for the rest of the series, it wouldn’t make a lot of difference.
But that won’t take the heat off the scorers. Never does.