If you want to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, shutting down all-world centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is generally considered priority number one. With Malkin missing tonight's contest between the Pacific Division-leading Sharks and Metropolitan Division-leading Penguins due to a lower-body injury, San Jose's job got a whole lot easier and they managed to pull it off convincingly for all of twenty minutes. During the first period of this game, the Penguins were held to just one shot on goal with Crosby on the ice at even-strength thanks to Todd McLellan aggressively matching his five-man shutdown unit of Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Tommy Wingels, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun against the league's leading scorer despite having last change.
But Dan Bylsma isn't an Olympic head coach for nothing and he began the second period with Crosby taking a center-ice faceoff against Joe Thornton rather than his first period shadow Couture. Twenty-seven seconds later, Crosby set up defenseman Brooks Orpik for a point shot that Pascal Dupuis deflected past Antti Niemi to give Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead. Two minutes later, an ill-timed pinch by Jason Demers in the neutral zone combined with a poorly executed line change by his teammates gave the Penguins a 3-on-1 the other way that Jayson Megna converted for a two-goal lead. Three minutes after that, the Couture line and Vlasic/Braun pairing were trapped in their own zone against the Penguins' top line for the first time all night and a bungled breakout by Braun led to Chris Kunitz depositing the rebound of a Crosby shot. Kunitz would score again on a power play to stake Pittsburgh to a 4-0 lead. Seemingly every mistake the Sharks made over the first ten minutes of the second period ended up in the back of their net and it was game over rather early.
I think the Sharks were better in this one than the 5-1 final score (Tomas Hertl got one back for San Jose before Kris Letang beat reliever Alex Stalock with a seeing-eye snap shot in the third) suggests, but making a slew of defensive mistakes against a team with the quick-strike ability of the Penguins is never a good idea and it burned them here. It also didn't help that the Sharks had a difficult go of it generating zone time with any line other than Couture's on the ice. It's fitting that this was the first time in fifteen games San Jose lost in regulation with Brent Burns in the lineup given that it was probably Burns' worst game of the season as he and his linemates, as well as the Joe Pavelski line who were broken up near the end of the second period, had the chance to exploit some of Pittsburgh's weaker forwards but never really seized it. The good news is that they all have the opportunity to right those wrongs in short order as the team faces the Hurricanes in Carolina tomorrow.
- While the scoreboard might not be an accurate reflection of how things went down in this game, I don't think the overall shot count is either. While the Sharks ended up outshooting Pittsburgh 45-30, that was largely built on a 14-3 edge in the third period throughout which the Penguins held either a three- or four-goal lead. When the score was tied or within a goal, Pittsburgh outshot San Jose 15-9.
- McLellan didn't seem all that pleased with Pavelski's game as he had him centering James Sheppard and John McCarthy for much of the third period and took him off the first power play unit during the one man-advantage the Sharks enjoyed in the final frame. While Pavelski has struggled at even-strength lately, I think much of it has to do with him, Marty Havlat and Tyler Kennedy just not complementing each other all that well, despite producing goals against New Jersey and Los Angeles.
- On a team full of household names, Simon Despres gets overlooked pretty easily (even by his own organization, who had him begin this season in the AHL and sparsely used him in the 2013 playoffs) but he's a silky-smooth skater who moves the puck effortlessly from the back end. He had one zone exit in particular in which he executed a breakout pass despite being hounded by two Sharks forecheckers. If the Penguins continue to underuse him, I wouldn't mind Doug Wilson giving Ray Shero a call, especially given how well things ended up for the Sharks the last time that happened.
- Hopefully Stalock being brought in for the start of the third period wasn't a sign the coaching staff is looking to go back to Antti Niemi tomorrow in Carolina. Not that I blame Niemi for the result tonight but goalies should basically never start both ends of a back-to-back.
FTF Three Stars
1st Period: Sidney Crosby
2nd Period: Chris Kunitz
3rd Period: Marc-Andre Fleury