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Penguins' depth has them on verge of Cup

Sharks' key players still trying to find way to contribute

by Amalie Benjamin @amaliebenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

SAN JOSE -- The names are not the ones you would expect, not Sidney Crosby or Joe Pavelski, not Kris Letang or Brent Burns.

Mostly, the goal scoring in the Stanley Cup Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks has been done by others, names like Ian Cole (who hadn't scored at all this season) and Melker Karlsson, by Justin Braun (who has two goals in the series, after scoring four in the regular season), and Nick Bonino.

That doesn't mean the big names aren't contributing. Crosby was dominant in the first two games of the series for Pittsburgh. Phil Kessel had the primary assists on the first two goals in the Penguins' 3-1 win in Game 4 at SAP Center on Monday. Evgeni Malkin (finally) scored.

But it has been the Penguins, the team that has been able to marshal its resources, convert on its depth chances and depth scoring, that has won three of the first four games. It has them possessing a 3-1 lead in the best-of-7 series, on the brink of a championship heading into Game 5 at Consol Energy Center on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports) with a chance to win the Stanley Cup.

In the first three rounds, the big names were the key performers for the Sharks. They were led by all those one would expect, by 13 goals from their captain, Pavelski, and 15 assists from Joe Thornton and 20 points from Burns. But when the game grew tighter against the Penguins and the stakes grew higher, the stars couldn't come through. Neither could the lesser lights, the ones that have been finding the mark for Pittsburgh.

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

"I think the deeper you get in the playoffs, the better the teams are, the deeper they are, and the harder they defend," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "As talented as both of these teams are offensively, 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."

That means that the goals being scored are sometimes mistakes, like the bad goal given up by Penguins goalie Matt Murray on Joel Ward in Game 3. Sometimes they're rebounds or deflections, like Cole's cleanup of a Kessel shot in Game 4 or Malkin's doorstop redirect in the same game.

They are often not pretty. They are often not scored by the stars. That has been the case in this series.

"I don't think teams get this far if they don't have the ability to defend," Sullivan said. "I think the top players get the most attention from probably the better defenders. It doesn't surprise me that goals are hard to come by because both teams are making a sincere commitment to playing away from the puck. When I say I think it's the hardest hockey that I've witnessed in this League, it seems like both teams have to fight for every inch out there. That's just the type of hockey it's become."

And it's something that the Penguins have simply done better than the Sharks.

Video: Bonino scores late in Game 1 to win it for Pens

"I thought every game they've found a way to create a little bit more," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said of his star players. "But there is no magic answer. They get a ton of attention. I think our support group has to take a little bit of pressure off them. We got a goal from Melker Karlsson [Monday] night. We've got to find a way to get some from other people too."

They haven't. That's why they're here, why the Sharks have yet to play with a lead in this series, something that, if it continues in Game 5, would become the first time it's happened for a team in a Stanley Cup Final since the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1960.

That's not to say that the big names aren't beating themselves up about not getting on the scoreboard. Malkin had scored one goal in 15 games before getting one on the power play Monday, and had admitted that he needed to contribute more for his team. Pavelski knows that, with the Sharks down and having relied on him so much in getting to this point, that his lack of production is problematic.

As the Sharks captain said, "If it's different, if it's 3-1 and you don't have anything, it's a different story. But right now, with the hole we're [in], a goal or two probably changes the outcome. The way it's been going for most of the postseason, I feel like I should probably have a bit more."

If he did, the Sharks might not be in this position, given how tight the final scores of the first four games have been, even if the play hasn't always reflected that. But Pavelski hasn't found a way to contribute, and San Jose hasn't found a way to pick up the slack. The Penguins have.

"It's not an easy environment," Sullivan said. "It's hard hockey. I think both teams have played extremely hard. We certainly have a lot of respect for San Jose and how good they are. But we couldn't be more proud of our players and the way we're playing."

That goes for the big names down to the lesser lights, the ones that have found their names on the scoresheet and maybe soon will find them on the Stanley Cup.

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