SAN JOSE -- The Pittsburgh Penguins established their competitive advantage from the drop of the puck in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. Their edge is speed and they outskated the San Jose Sharks so badly in the first 20 minutes, moving the puck ahead, winning races, flying by Shark-shaped pylons, that they made it clear this would be an issue for the rest of the series.
But the Sharks established their style little by little during the first three games. The question heading into Game 4 at SAP Center on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports) is whether they can keep doing it. They trail the best-of-7 series 2-1.
The Sharks are supposed to be the stereotypical hard, heavy team from the Western Conference. They're supposed to grind in the offensive zone and wear down their opponents. Do that and they generate offense while keeping their opponents from getting started. A Ferrari can't race if it's stuck in the garage.
"That's part of our identity," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said.
Hits aren't necessarily the best measure. When you hit it means you don't have the puck. But if you're the Sharks, you want to hit when you have the chance and especially when it leads to possession. The Sharks have increased their hit count from game to game, from 36 to 43 to 47, and they've been more effective on the forecheck, which has led to more time in the offensive zone.
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"Obviously we're getting in there and getting to the puck on time a little bit more," Sharks captain Joe Pavelski said. "Defensively I think we were able to track a little bit quicker, which allowed us to maybe get in and be physical."
What does Pavelski mean by "getting to the puck on time"?
It does little good to dump the puck into the offensive zone if it's not in a tough spot or the forechecker is a second late. The defenseman goes back, gets the puck and sends it the other way. If the defenseman takes a hit, maybe that bruises or tires him. But the point is to make him rush and cough up the puck.
"Forwards' jobs, when they're chipping pucks in, is to put it in a place where it's very difficult for a defenseman to get it," Penguins defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. "Ideally you want to put a puck where you can go get it or where you can put it in a position where the defenseman has to go take an awkward route and you can run them. That's our goal. That's their goal."
The Sharks accomplished that better in Game 3.
"They did a good job," Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz said. "They came hard last game. They were a desperate team. They put it in spots that it was tough to get it out. They're a good team. We knew they were going to come. I think we can do a better job supporting each other and make a simpler play. … We had chances to get it out. We've just got to execute."
What does Pavelski mean by "track a little bit quicker"?
Now that the Sharks have seen the Penguins' chip-and-chase game live and in color, they are better able to anticipate the areas where the Penguins like to chip the puck and the areas to which they skate, and they are better able to get sticks on pucks and bodies on bodies.
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The Penguins have seen this before. Lovejoy said the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals tried to intimidate them physically during the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It didn't work. The Penguins defeated the Rangers in five games, the Capitals in six.
"We're a team that prides ourselves on being brave, on going back for pucks, on winning pucks against bigger players, on taking hits," Lovejoy said. "We need to continue to do that."
Just as the Sharks can neutralize the Penguins' speed by banging around in their zone, the Penguins can neutralize the Sharks' physicality by breaking out crisply, moving the puck quickly and skating. It's hard for the Sharks to hit when they're on their heels and chasing the game.
The Penguins have played their way more often than the Sharks have so far. But the Sharks have been closing the gap on the ice, and each game has been close on the scoreboard. The winning goal in Game 1 was scored with 2:33 left in the third period, and Games 2 and 3 went to overtime.
"I said right at the beginning of the series, it's which team can impose their game on the other team for the longest stretch," DeBoer said. "No one's going to do it for 60 minutes. Both teams are too good, too good at bouncing back and recovering. So it's just who can do it for the longer period. I thought that was probably the case [for the Sharks in Game 3], and we won."
Now they have to do it again.