After three days off, the Pens are finally getting ready for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against San Jose on Monday night here at CONSOL Energy Center. And at this point, winger Eric Fehr said there’s more calm than nerves heading into the evening.
“I think our team has done a pretty good job of keeping it business as usual, showing up and just practicing and just playing games,” he said. “I think that’s the one thing I’ve really noticed with the guys is the guys are still staying pretty light and really enjoying themselves.”
That being said, the Pens aren't just happy to be here. They want four more wins, and with that, the right to lift that silver chalice over their heads.
“The focus has still been on playing hockey,” Fehr said. “We’re trying not to get swept away in the media and everything else. We’re here to do a job.”
BONINO, LETANG READY TO GO
Center Nick Bonino blocked a shot in the third period of the Pens’ 2-1 win over Tampa Bay in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Thursday and went to the locker room for a few minutes afterward.
Bonino returned to take a couple of absolutely crucial faceoffs in the final seconds of regulation, winning them both to ensure his team’s series-clinching victory. When I asked if he was just running on adrenaline at that point, he laughed and said, “In that situation everybody’s running on fumes. It was a long series and that’s why four days off was nice in-between.”
Bonino took advantage of those days off – "maintaining, I think, is the word," he joked – until he joined the Pens for their game-day skate this morning. Afterward – waiting patiently at his locker stall for the media with a knowing smile on his face – he confirmed he would be ready to play for Game 1.
“They’re important, those days when you can recover always come in big,” he said. “It helps teams that are injured get guys back from injury and it helps guys that are banged up and playing through stuff to recover a little bit more. Any extra day we get, we’ll take it.”
Meanwhile, defenseman Kris Letang did not practice yesterday or today, but spoke with the media and told them he was fine. The exchange went like this..
Reporter: Are you playing tonight?
Reporter: Do you have any problems?
And that was that.
The Pens are going to need Letang, especially against a team like San Jose who has gotten to this point largely because of their ability to check relentlessly the entire length of the ice, particularly in their offensive zone.
What makes them so dangerous is that while they’re a big, strong team who plays heavy and with power – a style that’s so characteristic in the West – they also have a ton of speed and skill. A lot of clubs just have one or the other. The Sharks have both, and they use it to their advantage. They’ll be looking to wear the Pens defensemen down by using that combination to get in on the forecheck, something Pittsburgh experienced with Washington.
“They’re a team that they have a lot of team speed just like us, but they’re big, they’re strong, they have skill,” said defenseman Ian Cole, who had spent his entire career in that conference with St. Louis before coming to Pittsburgh. “Those big guys have skill. So they’re going to be a challenge. I think the ability to transition quickly and obviously try to force those guys to the outside is going to be huge.”
That transition starts with getting back to pucks quickly and also moving them quickly, which head coach Mike Sullivan believes is one of the strengths of this group.
“I think we have a very courageous defense group,” he said. “They go back for pucks. They take hits when they have to to make plays and that’s an important element of our team concept and coming out of our end zone. It’s just the nature of today’s game. It’s difficult to provide any sort of interference for a forecheck, so defensemen have to take hits.
“I think we’ve got a very brave group. They go back for pucks, they take hits to make plays. But I think their mobility, a lot of times, gives them an opportunity to avoid body checks or only get a partial check and not have to bear the brunt of the full force. When we pass and move, I think that’s when we’re at our best.”
Both teams are deep offensively, but right now the Sharks have the edge numbers-wise as they boast the NHL's top-three scorers in Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns. They certainly have a lot of threats, but that doesn't change the Pens' approach.
"I don’t think that we play a system where we’re like, oh, we’re playing (Alex) Ovechkin, for instance, and we really need to have one guy out there that stands next to him the whole game. We defend well as a team," Cole explained. "We defend well in layers, and we can defend well through all four forward lines and all three defensive pairs. I think that’s how we’re built, and I think we do a really good job of it. And I think that’s why we’re able to keep that pace up throughout the course of a game.
"So I think it’s something that we’re really good at defending as a team, and I think that trying to key on one guy or two guys might be a mistake. Obviously you’re aware of them. You know when they’re on the ice. You know they’re dangerous, but I don’t think there’s a need to change the whole game plan based on a couple players."
IT’S BEEN A WHILE
Guys who have played in the West for a long time like Cole, Bonino, Ben Lovejoy and Justin Schultz are more familiar with the Sharks than most, but the team has been doing a ton of scouting and video work over the last few days to make sure everyone is up to speed.
“I wasn’t going to be breaking down tape and rewinding it and getting the telestrator out and drawing stuff, but we watched the film on them,” Cole said. “We’ve watched pretty much every series. Every time we’re on the road we’re always in our hospitality room watching games together as a team. I think a lot of the guys watch the games on their own just purely based on interest in who you might be playing or what we’re looking at.
“So I think everyone has a pretty good knowledge of them. I don’t think anyone’s completely void of knowledge, but it’ll be fun. As ‘Sully’ says, we’ll have to go to school here the first couple of days to figure out kind of what the game plan is.”
They may not know each other all that well right now, but the guys know that’s going to change soon enough.
“I think throughout the series we’re going to get more comfortable with each other,” defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. “We haven’t faced each other in a long time, but both of us, regardless of the opponent, want to try to play our best games. Really focus on ourselves, especially in this first game.”
One aspect of the matchup that surely got its fair share of attention in the video room was San Jose’s power play. They finished the regular season with the league’s third-best power play and have been even better in the postseason, ranking second overall by going 17 for 63 (27 percent). The Sharks have scored a power-play goal in 11 of 18 games during the postseason, going 9-2 in games when they score on the man-advantage.
The league’s leading scorer Logan Couture leads all NHL players with 11 playoff power-play points (4G-7A) while Joe Pavelski, who leads the league with 13 goals, has five of those on the man-advantage and is incredibly skilled at re-directing pucks past goaltenders.
Sullivan stressed the importance of being disciplined and giving San Jose as few opportunities as possible. But when the Pens do go to the box, he said it will be important for his team to keep the mindset they’ve had throughout the playoffs against other teams with good power plays.
“Certainly, they’re a tough power play to defend because they have a lot of movement and they have a lot of threats,” he said. “It’s difficult to key on any one guy because they have so many different threats. I think what we have to do is continue to understand why our penalty kill is successful and the pressure points in the areas where we can put that power play under pressure and force them to have to make plays under duress.
“I think that’s going to be an important aspect of our penalty kill. I think it’s been one of the strengths of our group not just in the postseason but through the regular season as well. Our penalty kill has consistently and quietly been a stabilizing aspect of our game and it’s won a lot of games for us over the last four months.”
San Jose defenseman Paul Martin returned to Pittsburgh, the place in which he played five years of his career from 2010-15, on Nov. 21, 2015.
Martin scored one goal and two points in the Sharks’ 3-1 victory. He assumed it would be his only trip to his former city.
He was wrong.
“I think under the circumstances it’s a good reason to be back here,” Martin said. “I would never have expected this to be the circumstances right now.
“Whoever’s writing this script for me is enjoying, and I’m going to have to get through it somehow. I’m looking forward to it though. It should be a good and fun challenge.”
Even though Martin was a member of the Pens just one season ago, there has been so much turnover on the roster that it’s not even close to the same team.
“Only from last year there’s only four forwards up front that I really played with,” he said. “It’s a big turnover and a couple new D.”
Martin signed with the Sharks in the offseason when it became apparent that the Pens, due to salary cap restraints, would not be able to re-sign him. However, that hasn’t stopped him from keeping in touch with some of his former teammates.
“Any time you spend five years with a lot of the guys you become close,” Martin said. “I’ve been on vacation with Sid before. (Chris Kunitz) has been one of the guys that I got to know pretty well. And (Kris Letang), being my partner last year.
“But like I said, it’s been a big change of guys even from when I was here last year.”
“But like I said, it’s been a big change of guys even from when I was here last year.”
Martin is part of a deep Sharks blue line, partnered with the dynamic Burns. Those two will likely receive the bulk of the attention this series, but there's a third Sharks defenseman who's arguably their most important in Marc-Edouard Vlasic. He does incredible two-way work and has matched up against Crosby for years dating back to their junior days.
"In the first three rounds, put all their top players together and that would be Crosby," Vlasic said. "It’s going to be a lot harder, but a lot more fun. If you give him any time and space he’ll make plays. If you’re in his face all the time, bump him, gap up on him, it’s not necessarily going to frustrate him but he’s going to know you’re there and he won’t be able to make plays. Which if he does, he’ll make you look silly."