San Jose's Logan Couture tracks Olli Maatta of the Penguins (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
A largely inexperienced defense corps finally got tagged by the Sharks and it happened quickly. And with Matt Murray looking human, the Penguins couldn't capitalize on another great possession game.
PITTSBURGH – The Penguins had a chance to slay San Jose on home ice, but the Sharks had some tricks of their own and now the series is headed back to California. Even though Pittsburgh dominated the possession game, San Jose used opportunistic scoring to down the Pens 4-2. Perhaps most disturbing for Pittsburgh is how exposed the team's inexperienced defense corps looked at times, particularly in the first three minutes when the Sharks staked themselves to a 2-0 lead.
“I don't think either team would have preferred all that chaos in the first five minutes,” said right winger Bryan Rust. “They got two quick ones but we responded well. Bit of a wild situation there.”
Wild indeed. By the end of the first period, the score was 3-2 Sharks. It had been a pretty tight series before tonight. But a lot of mad scrambling in their own zone put the Penguins in a hole and it's hard not to note that veteran Kris Letang was the only Pittsburgh blueliner who wasn't on the ice for a San Jose goal in that first period. The fact San Jose guns such as Brent Burns and Logan Couture came out blazing didn't help matters.
“They've got smart forwards who can find guys and they have a lot of chemistry,” said D-man Olli Maatta. “We weren't ready and we gave them too much time. If you channel your emotions the wrong way, you can be careless.”
The big question heading into Game 6 now revolves around whether the Penguins defense can rally. The forwards certainly did their job – cycling away in the San Jose zone, using their speed to bedevil and pester – but Sharks goaltender Martin Jones turned in a fantastic performance, stopping 44 shots. Clearly San Jose figured out a way to generate offense tonight by pressuring down low and Pittsburgh Matt Murray was not at his phenom-best. This is, of course, understandable – he is a 22-year-old rookie – but if San Jose can get to Murray via the scrambly defense corps again, it won't matter how often they have the puck. That was the formula in Game 6 and the Penguins didn't even need a first intermission chat for a wake-up call.
“We didn't have to talk about it,” Maatta said. "We knew. Everybody knows we're a better team than that first five minutes.”
If there is a positive to take out of this game for Pittsburgh, it's that they nearly pulled it off. That early San Jose lead was gone in two minutes and the Penguins had their opportunities to tie proceedings in the second and third periods. Jones happened to be the answer most of the time, while Joe Thornton did a lot of little things that ended up being crucial. But Evgeni Malkin was great for Pittsburgh and Sidney Crosby was very dangerous. Malkin was rewarded on the scoresheet; Crosby was not. Is there anything to suggest Crosby will be snakebitten two games in a row? Not likely.
“It's always disconcerting when you lose,” Rust said. “But it's a positive that we were able to play well and get our chances – we just didn't bury them.”
They didn't bury the Sharks, either. Now San Jose goes home with a whole lotta momentum and the chance to force a winner-take-all Game 7 where anything can happen. Not exactly the scenario you'd like to see a shaky defense corps in if you're a Pittsburgh fan. This series can't end fast enough for the Penguins.