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Sharks' Jones key to Cup Final success

Goaltender may need to steal game or two against Penguins to win championship

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

PITTSBURGH -- The shots came from the points, the circles, the slot. They came from behind the goal line.

In one hold-your-breath sequence during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist redirected a pass from teammate Sidney Crosby on the rush in front of the net. San Jose Sharks goaltender Martin Jones stopped him. The puck skidded to the left corner.

But not to safety. Crosby whipped it right back at Jones, hoping for a bounce or rebound. Jones got a pad on it, and the puck ricocheted out of danger.

"They shoot from everywhere," Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic said.

The Penguins peppered the Sharks with 41 shots on goal in a 3-2 victory Monday. Entering Game 2 at Consol Energy Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports), a main question is whether the Sharks can reduce their shots against and whether Jones can steal a game, or the series, if not. It says a lot that he was their best player in Game 1, and it wasn't enough.

The Sharks have allowed more than 41 shots only once in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. They allowed 45 on May 5 in Game 4 of the Western Conference Second Round against the Nashville Predators, and that game went to triple overtime, and San Jose lost 4-3 after allowing 27 shots in regulation.

The Sharks allowed 39 shots in regulation in Game 2 of that series, and Jones made 37 saves in a 3-2 victory. But otherwise Jones has had to be solid, not spectacular. He hasn't had to make more than 29 saves in any other win. He has three shutouts, but he didn't have to make more than 26 saves in any of those wins.

"He's been great when we've needed him to be," Sharks forward Tommy Wingels said. "Our identity as a team is kind of not to give up numerous Grade 'A' opportunities. I think that's our identity. That's the way we want to play. That's the way we check. That's the way we backcheck. So it's certainly on the rest of the team to cut those down."

Easier said than done.

Video: SJS@PIT, Gm1: Jones denies Kessel, Bonino

The Tampa Bay Lightning were allowing 29.7 shots per game through the first two rounds of the playoffs; they allowed 38.4 shots per game against the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final and were outshot 269-179 in the series. They allowed 41 shots or more three times and never allowed fewer than 34. They made it to Game 7 largely because of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.

"When we average 40, 45 shots … It's tough to lose when you do that," Penguins forward Nick Bonino said. "Obviously Vasilevskiy tried his hardest. We outshot them by a hundred and they were in Game 7. We've got to finish a little more, but I think generating shots, we're happy with that."

The Sharks were allowing 27.1 shots through the first three rounds of the playoffs before they allowed 41 on Monday. As they did against the Lightning, the Penguins pounced on turnovers and used their speed, generating scoring chances off the rush and from sustained possession in the offensive zone.

"A lot were from the outside, but a lot were also prime scoring chances," Wingels said. "Are you OK giving away the ones from outside? Yeah, that's fine. But it's the ones in the heart of the slot where the goalie needs to bail you out that we need to eliminate."

Jones is unlikely to get rattled. He is known for his calm, quiet demeanor. Sharks captain Joe Thornton has compared him to Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, who won Olympic gold for Canada in 2014 and the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player last season without raising his heart rate or his voice.

There is a reason Jones is not quoted in this column. He rarely says much.

"He's a great goalie," Sharks backup goalie James Reimer said. "He sees the game well. He can read plays well. I think he just goes with the flow and it doesn't really bother him too much whether it's 22 shots or 41 shots. He's good under pressure." 

In 120 NHL games in the regular season and playoffs, Jones has faced 40 shots or more only four times: Monday against the Penguins, the triple-overtime game against Nashville and twice this regular season. He made 47 saves and won one of those games, March 7 against the Calgary Flames, and made 38 saves and lost the other in a shootout, Feb. 24 against the Colorado Avalanche.

The Sharks need to break the Pittsburgh pattern and assert their style, grinding in the offensive zone, keeping the puck away from the Penguins, keeping their shots against down. Otherwise, to win the Stanley Cup, Jones probably will have to be their MVP in this series.

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