By Ivan Makarov
After losing to an Eastern Conference outsider Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday at home, San Jose Sharks had a high mountain to climb against East’ top team Pittsburgh Penguins, who made a rare appearances at the SAP Center, where they were winless in the last 10 visits. Sharks made the best of their chances, and beat the Penguins 5-3 in what turned out to be one of the best games of the season.
It really felt like a playoffs atmosphere. Some of the best players in the game were on the ice on San Jose. The fans were loud. Both teams played hard and well. There were big hits and back and forth goals. The game had it all.
Sharks like to start well and get on board early when playing at home, attacking in waves, and taking home ice advantage. They did the opposite of that against the Penguins as the game began, allowing the visiting team to take 2-0 lead going into the first intermission.
San Jose looked sloppy in the beginning, and when they do it against the offense that Pittsburg has, it can be costly. Olli Maatta scored the first goal in the game on a rebound near the crease after Tanner Glass took the shot and Antti Niemi was unable to control it.
Shortly after, Brent Burns took a roughing penalty, giving the visitors their first power play of the game. Penguins have the best power play in the league, and they capitalized right away, with Chris Kunitz scoring his 29th goal of the season on a pass from Evgeni Malkin.
Sharks did not get discouraged, and instead switched the game to the very physical one, taking advantage of its size and speed. That worked in their favor, as Penguins started to lose the puck more, and could not keep up with the fast transition game the Sharks were succeeding in.
“I thought that’s as physical as we’ve played in a while,” said Sharks coach Todd McLellan after the game. “We were really engaged. And it’s not about running out of position and big hits. It’s about body position, playing on the inside, knocking people off 50-50 pucks, playing around the opposition’s net, even in front of the net. It’s nice to get rewarded for that type of effort.”
The key turning point in the game came towards the end of the second period. Still down 2-0, Justin Braun was credited with a goal after he shot the puck into the scrum in front of Penguins goal, as it went in off someone’s body. The goal was originally recorded to Adam Burrish, but the replays showed that he did not touch the puck before it went in.
Early in the third, Sharks were shorthanded when Patrick Marleau broke through and only had Evgeni Malkin to beat before getting a breakaway chance. Marleau tried but failed, only to be in the exact same position just second later – again just Malkin separating him from Penguins goaltender Jeff Zatkoff. This time Marleau succeeded and scored on a breakaway, which allowed the Sharks to tie the game at 2-2.
Only 19 seconds later Maatta scored another goal to give Penguins a lead. But it was short lived when Brent Burns tied the game again on the next shift on a pass by Joe Pavelski who found him all alone in front of the goal.
Sharks continued to press and hit all throughout the ice, and scored two more goals to seal the victory. Joe Thornton made it 4-3 when he scored a strange goal on a wrist shot from above the face-off circle as the puck took an odd trajectory towards the net. Brent Burns scored the last goal in the game on an empty net with just three seconds remaining.
“They were physical, and we did not get a lot of offensive zone time,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby (who was -5 on the night) after the game. “They get speed through the neutral zone and they are able to create things with the speed and size that they have. We didn’t play enough in their end.”
Sharks made a good rebound against the Penguins and will look to build on that victory on Saturday when they host Montreal Canadians.