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Penguins dictate the pace in Game 1 victory

Pittsburgh's speed forces San Jose out of comfort zone to open Stanley Cup Final

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

PITTSBURGH -- Only once did the action seem in slow motion.

Late in the third period of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks, Penguins defenseman Kris Letang passed from the right-wing corner. The puck went by two Sharks defensemen: Brent Burns, approaching without his stick, unable to break up the pass, and Paul Martin, standing in front of the net, unaware of the man behind him.

Penguins forward Nick Bonino had time to settle the puck in front of his left skate, look up and shoot as Martin tried to recover and goaltender Martin Jones tried to slide across. It was a split-second. On this night, a split-second was forever.

"It was kind of a hold-your-breath moment," Penguins forward Chris Kunitz said.

Bonino beat Jones' blocker with 2:33 left in the game, and Consol Energy Center exhaled with a roar. The goal gave the Penguins a 3-2 victory against the Sharks on Monday.

Video: SJS@PIT, Gm1: Bonino finishes Letang's pretty feed

It was the seventh straight one-goal game to open a Cup Final. It was the sixth straight time the winning goal was scored in the last five minutes to open a Cup Final. It was a great game that could lead to a great series.

"It felt like a Stanley Cup Final game, that's for sure," Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon said.

For much of the game, it seemed like the fast-forward button was stuck on the DVR, like the action was set at 1.2-times speed. How fast was it? Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, a two-time Hart Trophy winner and finalist again this season, said he was "trying to keep up with the pace" and that "it was another level, as to be expected here."

Both teams played their game for stretches. Coach Mike Sullivan wanted the Penguins to play fast and fearless. He wanted them to dictate the terms and not feel out their opponents, and they did, dominating the first period and taking a 2-0 lead. But the Sharks carried the play in the second and tied it 2-2, getting pucks deep and grinding down low before the Penguins pressed again in the third.

Both teams' top lines drove play: Crosby, Conor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist for Pittsburgh, and Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl for San Jose. Both teams' top defensemen made an impact: Letang for Pittsburgh, Burns for San Jose. One team won, and the other left feeling disappointed, not discouraged.

"We feel we could have won that game," Burns said.

The biggest question now is why the Penguins were able to play their game more often than the Sharks were, and whether they can continue that over the course of the series or whether the Sharks can impose their will.

The Penguins made the Sharks look slow in the first period and parts of the third. As San Jose coach Peter DeBoer said, the Sharks spent too much time standing around and watching, turning pucks over, giving up odd-man rushes and breakaways. If it wasn't for a great backcheck by Burns to break up a Carl Hagelin chance at the end of the first and big saves by Jones in the first and third, the score might have been lopsided.

"We obviously weren't prepared," Sharks center Logan Couture said. "It doesn't take me to say that. You guys saw it yourselves. It was ugly. Tough to explain. We need to be better than that."

Experience was no excuse. Though only one Sharks skater had played in the Cup Final before, forward Dainius Zubrus, several Penguins were making their Cup Final debuts too, including the forwards who gave them a 2-0 lead: rookies Sheary and Bryan Rust.

Video: SJS@PIT, Gm1: Rust, Sheary give Pens an early lead

The Sharks dismissed the suggestion that they weren't ready because they played a slower team in the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference Final. Burns said it wasn't like the Blues had "boots on." They said they simply weren't themselves.

"I think the overall message was, 'Let's get back to work,'" Dillon said. "We weren't working in the first period. We weren't using our legs. I think we almost just hoped maybe they would have had some errors or they would have turned some pucks over. Here in the Final, teams aren't going to give you free goals. You're going to have to earn everyone."

The Sharks did score two goals in the second. They scored their first goal on the power play from Hertl and the second at even strength from Patrick Marleau. The Marleau goal was a direct result of the style they want to play. They sustained pressure in the offensive zone. Couture passed to the point and Burns got a shot through. Marleau picked up a rebound and scored on a wraparound.

"We saw when we're playing Sharks hockey, when we're playing to our identity, we're going to get rewarded for it," Dillon said. "We're going to be successful."

But they couldn't sustain it, and that's what this series will be about.

"It's exactly what both teams want to do," Crosby said. "You see in the second, they got to it and we were on our heels and they generated some offense. There's going to be swings of momentum. It's going to happen. It's whoever can get to it more often."

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