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And then the sun came out above Duluth.
The silver lining is actually a golden lining, judging by that unfamiliar gold orb up in the sky, and if anything can more properly signal the end of hockey season, maybe the arrival of summertime is it.
As this is written, the Stanley Cup Playoff final series is still alive, but barely. It’s on a respirator. Those of us who are fervent hockey fans were hoping the final series would go seven games, but when the Pittsburgh Penguins spanked the San Jose Sharks 3-1 Monday night, it gave them command of the series at three games to one. All that meant is that when the series was to resume on Thursday night, all the Sharks would have to do is win three straight games.
That seems like an improbably tall task. Most of what Dr. Gary Kohls calls “the mainstream media” in Minnesota sports reporting has been consumed with analyzing the Minnesota Twins and why they have disintegrated into such a bizarre failure this season. I’ve dabbled in that myself, and I can actually see some silver (or gold) linings to the Twins story this summer, too.
But I picked the Sharks to beat the Penguins and win the Stanley Cup, so if they are to go down somewhat gently in Game 5 Thursday night in Pittsburgh, we need to know what really happened. In my humble opinion, both the Penguins and the Sharks veered dramatically away from the way they normally play. The Penguins rose up and played the best they have played all season, hitting a peak at the perfect time, and finding the Sharks were inadvertently playing into their gunsights.
I was looking forward to the finals because both teams are skill-speed-finesse teams, so it had to be a thrilling match. Looking back, the Sharks used their skill and finesse to get past a St. Louis Blues outfit that seemed anxious to beat on them. Yet in the finals, the Sharks made two distinct alterations in their play.
First, they had never been to the finals before, as a franchise, so they were out of their element, but tried to adapt. They tried too hard, in my estimation. They had their offense blunted by Pittsburgh’s uncanny ability to block their shots – the shots that used to get through from the points like rockets, either hitting the net or hitting the goalie and leaving rebounds.
But every time a team has its shots blocked, it means they were patient enough to move the puck around, but then not patient enough when they decided to blast their shots through traffic. That’s how shots get blocked. More patience might have meant one or two more passes on those power plays, resulting in a few clearer paths to the net.
The second thing the Sharks did after realizing the Penguins could come at them on an emotional high in Game 1 is to subscribe to the age-old NHL game plan of saying, “They’re really good; we’ve got to hit ’em.” With that, the skill-speed-finesse Sharks tried to do a reasonable impersonation of runaway hitters, slam-banging whenever possible. They did it well, too, but the time they spent charging around and hammering the Penguins was time that might have been better spent finding the way to forecheck and making plays – the things that got them to the finals in the first place,
I know the Penguins well, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeny Malkin and the rest, including valuable new additions like Phil Kessel and Matt Cullen. Strong offense, good goaltending, but a comparatively mild team defense, which prevented the Penguins from challenging for their division championship. But all the elements were there, all along, they just needed the finals to bring it all together.
But because their offense seemed to hinge too much on Sidney Crosby, I figured the Washington Capitols would take out the Penguins in the first round. And I was close to certain Tampa Bay would ride its hot hand and beat them in the East finals.
Meanwhile, the San Jose Sharks were a strong team, underrated all along, as they have been for years. Joe Thornton, joined by Joe Pavelski, and the emerging Brent Burns on defense, could come at you with four balanced lines, constant-pressure forechecking and a power play that could put teams away. Always fun to watch, the Sharks have a lot more talent, and bolstered Burns with the addition of Paul Martin, the ex-Gopher from Elk River.
In the first two games in Pittsburgh, the Penguins won 3-2 and 2-1 in overtime. Analysts raved about how thoroughly Pittsburgh outplayed San Jose, but I loved coach DeBoer’s response: “We lost the first game 3-2 and we lost the second game 2-1 in overtime. I think I’ll hold off on ordering the funeral just yet.”
Wonderful sarcasm. The teams went out to the Shark Tank in San Jose, and while it was tough, the Sharks won in overtime to make it a series. However, the Penguins came right back and wrested Game 4 from the Sharks, 3-1, with their most dominant display of the series.
It was most dominant because it became obvious that Sidney Crosby has submersed himself into a thorough team game – willing to play a role in the big picture, rather than be the shining star of a smaller picture. His role, ironically, became greater and more valuable with that shift.
There were intriguing puzzles in the series. Malkin hadn’t scored, on Pittsburgh’s side, but Pavelski was totally stifled from his usual playmaking style, and Thornton never got room to maneuver for his eye-popping passes. And Burns might have been the biggest disappoiintment. Except for rare shifts, or parts of shifts, he never was the dashing, bold offensive weapon that could cause defenses to retreat and try to weather it. Instead, Burns spent the first four games restricting his own effectiveness. Over-anxiousness, perhaps.
Going into Game 5, my disappointment is that the casual fans who had never seen Burns, Thornton and Pavelski at their best...still hadn’t seen it. Hope was fleeting that the Sharks could suddenly pull it all back together for Game 5 and surprise the Penguins and hockey fans everywhere.