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Penguins have come a long way to 3-1 lead

Pittsburgh one victory from Stanley Cup after Game 4 win against Sharks

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

SAN JOSE -- Less than four months ago, goaltender Matt Murray was playing in front of small crowds for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the American Hockey League: 4,916 at Hartford on Feb. 12, 5,193 at home on Feb. 14, 6,855 at Toronto on Feb. 19, 3,471 at Portland on Feb. 26. He had played four NHL games at that point. He was a prospect.

Monday, in front of 17,562 at SAP Center and a national television audience in two countries, Murray was First Star as the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the San Jose Sharks 3-1 in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final and took a 3-1 lead in the best-of-7 series, making 11 of his 23 saves in the third period. Though he has won nine regular-season NHL games, he has won 14 Stanley Cup Playoff games, one short of the rookie record.

"I think it goes to show you," Murray, 22, sitting on a podium in an interview room next to superstar Evgeni Malkin, said, "you can never predict what's going to happen."

No one predicted this. The Penguins are one victory from the fourth championship in franchise history, and they have a chance to win the Stanley Cup at home for the first time in Game 5 at Consol Energy Center on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports). They have not trailed in this series. Their only loss came in overtime.

It's incredible, considering where this team and many of its players were a few weeks and months ago and how well all the pieces have come together. General manager Jim Rutherford fired coach Mike Johnston and promoted Mike Sullivan from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Dec. 12, when the Penguins were 15-10-3. Rutherford said he felt sicker than he had ever felt before in his long NHL career after the Penguins were outscored 15-4 in four straight losses afterward.

Video: PIT@SJS, Gm4: Malkin tips in Kessel's shot for PPG

"The fact of the matter is, we have a good group of guys in here, and we can still make this thing work," Rutherford told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review then. "It looks like we're never going to win a game again and we're buried. We're not. … We're still very much in everything. The bottom line is you gotta make the playoffs to win a Cup, and this team can do it."

Rutherford traded for defenseman Trevor Daley on Dec. 14. He kept reshaping the roster to add speed and fill holes because of injuries, calling up players like Murray, Tom Kuhnhackl, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary, trading for forward Carl Hagelin and defenseman Justin Schultz. The Penguins finished on a 28-10-7 run, winning 15 of their last 17 games, and defeated the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning in the first three rounds of the playoffs.

Now they are all over the Sharks thanks to contributions from all over the place. Malkin scored his first goal in 16 games Monday. Captain Sidney Crosby has one goal in eight games. But the Penguins are in this position because they have gotten goals in this series from forward Phil Kessel, who was acquired in the offseason for his scoring and leads the team with 10 goals and 21 points, as well as from Rust and Sheary and Nick Bonino and Ian Cole and Eric Fehr and Patrick Hornqvist and Ben Lovejoy.

"I think that's the sign of a good team," said Cole, who had gone 104 regular-season and playoff games without a goal before scoring Monday. "It's always the secondary scoring that steps up in the playoffs, and it's not one guy on the third or fourth line. It's different guys every night that are stepping up, some unexpected guys."

Video: PIT@SJS, Gm4: Cole finishes rebound for early lead

The Penguins are in this position also because they have played team defense, keeping the Sharks to the outside, blocking shots. Murray allowed a soft goal in Game 3 on Saturday that tied the game, and the Penguins lost in overtime 3-2, but he has been solid to brilliant otherwise. Sharks captain Joe Pavelski, who leads the Stanley Cup Playoffs in goals with 13, hasn't scored in this series. He doesn't even have a point, and he's far from the only Shark who hasn't been able to produce.

"The deeper you get in the playoffs, the better the teams are, the deeper they are, and the harder they defend," Sullivan said. "This is something we've said to our team all year long: It doesn't matter how many goals we score. We have to learn how to defend. We have to learn how to make a commitment to keeping the puck out of our net. I know this team can score. When we start making a commitment to playing away from the puck, keeping the puck out of our net, now we become a team that's, in our opinion, a contender."

One more win, and the Penguins won't be contenders anymore. They'll be Stanley Cup champions.

"Down the stretch and all the way through, everybody's contributed in different ways," Rutherford said quietly in the hallway outside the dressing room. "We have a lot of character guys, and the more character guys you have, the more chance you have of that coming together. To this point, everybody's contributed. Now we have to be ready for one more."

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