PITTSBURGH – There is nothing cynical about the way these Pittsburgh Penguins play hockey.
When you see Sidney Crosby spinning Justin Braun into a pretzel before delivering a perfect backhand pass, or Kris Letang leading the forecheck with three minutes to play in a tied game or just the blazing speed they exhibit when at their best, it’s impossible not to sit up and take notice.
It was no coincidence that head coach Mike Sullivan kept hitting on two words when addressing his players in the locker room before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final:
That’s exactly what they were in delivering an impressive 3-2 win over the San Jose Sharks on Monday night. They pushed the pace early, weathered a Sharks counter-punch in the second period and didn’t let off as the minutes ticked away.
“We didn’t want to go into this series with a wait-and-see approach,” said Sullivan. “We didn’t want to go through a feeling out process. We wanted to try to go out and dictate the terms right away. I think that’s when we play our best.”
In Crosby’s words, the Penguins are in that zone when they’re “not necessarily thinking out there, but more reacting.”
There was no time to think on a night like this one – not with so much at stake and the intensity blazing hot. How else to explain Letang’s reaction after racing deep into the San Jose zone, waiting out the backcheckers and feeding Nick Bonino for the winning goal?
He looked up at the clock afterwards and couldn’t believe there was only 2:33 left to play.
“Great feeling,” said Letang. “I’m not going to lie, I didn’t know there was like two, three minutes left. So when I looked at the clock I was pretty happy.”
When Pittsburgh is clicking you almost don’t want to see the clock hit zero. They are not a team that endeavours to squeeze the life out of the game or barely hang on for dear life after building a lead.
It happens at times, of course, but fundamentally this is a team that wants to spend the entire night in the attacking zone.
The Sharks learned that in a big way during a stunning opening 20 minutes to this series when they were outshot 15-4 and fortunate to emerge trailing just 2-0. They are a quick team themselves and haven’t seen anything like it during these playoffs.
“For whatever reason, it caught us off guard,” said Sharks defenceman Brenden Dillon.
“Now we know what we’re in for – we’ll be better,” added teammate Brent Burns.
They certainly showed that during a second period that basically confirmed the theory we had coming into this Stanley Cup Final. The series is going to be tight. And barring something unforeseen, it’ll probably be long.
When we return to Consol Energy Center for Game 2 on Wednesday night, the Sharks will be sharper and the bar will be raised even more.
As it was, they had every opportunity to win the opener entering the final period. The shot attempts were basically a saw-off, and despite Pittsburgh’s rollicking start, the Sharks had climbed back to 2-2 by converting on their lethal power play and getting a wraparound goal from Patrick Marleau.
That’s when Pittsburgh put the pedal to the floor and found a winner before overtime.
“We’ll look at the game tape,” said Sharks coach Peter DeBoer. “There’s nothing that I saw tonight that I’m going out of here thinking that we can’t come out and compete and play much better on our end. … It’s the two best teams in the league.”
It had to be comforting for every player on the Penguins bench to see how Crosby responded when the lights got turned up.
“He was impossible to defend,” said veteran centre Matt Cullen.
“You could see his hunger to win,” said Sullivan. “He’s inspiring. I thought he was a force out there all night. … You could see he has that twinkle in his eye I think.
“He knows that we played extremely hard to get to this point.”
If the first game was any indication, this has the makings of a special series.
The Sharks have the ability to play a style that is just as pleasing on the eyes – they just didn’t get to it enough after an emotional Western Conference Final and cross-continent flight. It’s no coincidence that these have been the NHL’s hottest two teams for months.
That they choose to go about their business by playing offence more than defence is a delightful bonus for those watching.
“It’s exactly what both teams want to do,” said Crosby. “You see in the second [period], they got to it and we were on our heels and they generated some offence. There’s going to be swings of momentum, it’s going to happen, it’s whoever can kind of get to it more often.”
It should be a pleasure watching them wrestle for control.