NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Preview: Pittsburgh vs. San Jose

Tonight, the San Jose Sharks will fight to stay alive in what has turned out to be a lopsided battle for the 2016 Stanley Cup. They will face off against the Pittsburgh Penguins on home ice at the SAP Center, for which will be Game 3 of the National Hockey League Finals.

So far, the Pens are leading the series 2-0 after they were able to hold on for a 3-2 victory in Game 1, and winning in overtime 2-1, after many pucks hit the crossbars in Game 2 last Wednesday. The positive side for the Sharks is that they have not lost three straight games since the end of March, and are 7-1 in their past eight at home heading into Game 3 on Saturday.

That advantage is probably why all the major betting centres are still picking the Sharks to win and they are solid -140 favorites, meaning if you bet $140 you will win $100 versus the Penguins. The Sharks are expected to win their first game of the series at the SAP Center by most betting houses and experts.

San Jose came very close to evening the series in Game 2 on Wednesday night, by forcing overtime on a tying goal by Justin Braun with just less than five minutes left in the third period.

Unfortunately for them, Pens’ Conor Sheary hit quickly in extra time, scoring the game-winner at the 2:35 mark on an assist from Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby. Crosby had been accused of cheating on the faceoff that led to the goal by Shakrs’ Logan Couture. He made the accusation postgame and then later retracted saying everyone cheats on faceoffs.

Whether is was cheating or not, the Pens now have a nice cushion of 2-0 in the series that has made them the big favorites to win their fourth Stanley Cup, and first since the 2008-09 season. They have stellar goaltending, especially in Game 2 from their rookie netminder Matt Murray, who made 21 saves and almost recorded his second shutout of the postseason, which would have been the third of his career. But the Sharks took a bite out of that record.

Murray’s rival, Martin Jones, has overall faced more shots with Pittsburgh firing 71 on him compared to 48 by San Jose. But that will probably change since the Sharks will work hard to change that at home in front of their lively home crowd at the Shark Tank.

This 2-advantage is the first time the Pens have led by 2 so early in a series, before this series they split the first two games in each of the previous three rounds. The Pens are 2-2 in their last four away from home in the playoffs, but they did win Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final, which was a 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. So it could happen again.

But even if the Penguins are the clear favorites to win the next match, the Sharks have not fought tooth and nail to get this far to go down 3-0. Yes the Pens did perform exceptionally well in the first two games of the finals using their fast paced hockey to their advantage, which kept the Sharks off their game. Their notorious HBK line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel, has played well firing on all cylinders. Kessel buried the team’s first goal in Game 2, while Hagelin and Bonino had an assist each. Bonino also blocked four shots. Including Bonino getting the go-ahead goal in Game 1. If they continue to dominate then Pittsburgh will carry home the Stanley Cup. But not so fast we say, the Sharks are not ones to be so easily domesticated.

Murray is also another factor to consider. He hasn’t been tested as much as Jones, who played quite brilliantly stopping many excellent Penguin opportunities. Murray, who is just 22 years old, stopped 21 of 22 shots in his last game, but is that he full potential of the Sharks’ offense? It’s highly doubtful. If the Sharks can turn on the juice Murray might have his hands full, overwhelming him will be the key to Game 3. They have to shoot more on net similar to only goal he gave up in Game 2, which was on a shot made by Justin Braun late in the third period. Braun found the back of the net through a sea of bodies and rifled it past Murray on the near side. Going high is the secret.

With the series now shifting to San Jose, the Sharks can be expected to get their game back quickly. They have been the highest-scoring team in the playoffs, despite not performing or skating hard against the Penguins. But they have gotten this far on their puck movement and defensive skills. So there is still a big hope for the Sharks to come off Saturday night with the strongest defence and their high octane offense running. Home ice will feel good and they should feel like their old winning selves again. A familiar hunting ground will do that.

The Sharks will need to counter the HBK line of the Penguins to stop them from scoring goals, and they’ll have to find a way around Murray’s goal tending skills if they want to beat Pittsburgh convincingly. The rookies may be 2-0 down, and it may look quite daunting to win four out of the remaining five games, but they still have a great chance to overcome the deficit like several teams have done before to win the most holiest of trophies. Just win at home, take out the ice from under the Penguins’ feet and they’ll be fine. Actually more than fine, they’ll feed that appetite that got them to post-seaon.

Our Pick: Sharks over Pens, 5-1