PITTSBURGH -- Nick Bonino’s best stick in the playoffs this spring has been as a dominant faceoff guy for the Penguins.
Naturally, what Bonino did Tuesday night in the final 2:33 of play turned out to be something the 28-year-old centerman doesn’t do all that often -- like scoring a goal.
Bonino’s first-ever Stanley Cup Final marker gave the Penguins a 3-2 victory over the Sharks at CONSOL Energy Center. The kicker is, for all the speed Pittsburgh has, Bonino was standing still and undecided which is rather un-Penguin-like.
“I came into the zone late and saw Tanger [Kris Letang] in the corner,” Bonino said. “Hagey [Carl Hagelin] was down there battling with them. I wasn’t sure if I should get out of there and get above their guys. They kept it alive.”
Brent Burns, who went at it with Patric Hornqvist all night, lost his stick battling with Letang behind the Sharks net. Paul Martin saw it and tried to stand halfway between goalie Martin Jones and the slot where Bonino stood motionless.
Letang fed the puck diagonally and Bonino swung.
“It’s one of those shots that wasn’t my hardest shot by any means, but just found a way to flip it over him,” Bonino said. “That pass from Tanger makes it a whole lot easier to score goals.”
Bonino had a team-high six shots. As they have done all through the playoffs, Pittsburgh outshot the Sharks, 41-26.
“He’s a terrific player in every aspect of the game,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan of Bonino. “We use him in so many key situations, offensively and defensively.
“He has high hockey IQ and sees the ice well. The way he uses his stick to take away passes is impressive. He blocks shots. Good faceoff guy. He’s done so much for our team to get us to this point.”
Pittsburgh had to kill off a penalty after his goal to survive.
“A penalty that late, it’s a really good feeling and not giving them any shots, we got to go do that,” Hagelin said.
The Sharks haven’t seen the kind of speed the Penguins possess and they got some real close-up views in the opening period.
Pittsburgh owned the middle of the ice, flying unimpeded into the Sharks end. Were it not for the beleaguered Sharks defense’ sticks on the ice, it could have been a blowout. The Sharks simply could not keep up with the Penguins, who jumped out 2-0.
Both goals in 1:02 – Bryan Rust and Conor (cq) Sheary -- that began with rushes then were parlayed into extended shifts in the zone.
“I thought we did a really good job of trying to feel the game out,” said Penguins captain, Sidney Crosby. “Two teams that haven’t seen much of each other in a while. We’re playing, trying to get into our game. It gave us a real good boost.”
Every time you looked up, Hornqvist was in the paint, battling with everything he had against Burns, who incidentally, had to chase down sprinter Hagelin with a poke check from behind during a breakaway or it could have been 3-0 pretty early.
“We skated really hard in the first and they caught up to us in the second when we stopped skating a bit,” Hagelin said. “I think overall, we have to use our speed to be successful in this series.”
Offensively, the highest-scoring team in the playoffs -- the Sharks -- went 8:03 without shot at one point. The Penguins had 27 attempts that period as Jones truly was under siege.
Second period? Different story. Right away, Patrick Marleau had a breakaway, but his shot was wide of the net.
Two minutes later, it was 2-1 as Tomas Hertl fired in tight off Pens defenseman Olli Maatta past Matt Murray on the power play. Within minutes, the Sharks showed some bite with an 8-1 lead in shots. They had settled down. Or maybe just settled in.
Or maybe the Penguins went from eight-gear to third.
“Part of it is human nature,” Sullivan said. “You have to give opponents credit. They will raise their game, raise their intensity. It sometimes starts with our decisions with the puck.
“Early in the second period we turned puck over a few times without a lot of ice. We chose to play in front of them instead of behind them. “
Pittsburgh began having trouble getting cleanly out of its own zone and all those quick lanes through neutral ice were bogged down with bodies.
And whereas it was the Penguins who had this uncanny habit of scoring late in periods against Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference finals, Marleau had a brilliant fake and wraparound move behind the net on Murray to tie the game with 1:48 left in the period.
“They were really good at getting pucks through the point and banging rebounds, like their second goal but they didn’t do anything crazy,” Murray said.
“They like to get pucks through the point. They are good at sending three guys to the net hard for rebounds. That’s what they did on [Marleau’s] one.”
Marleau figuratively left his mark in this one with a questionable hit to Rust’s head in the third period that twice saw Rust leave the game yet only earned the Shark centerman a minor for an illegal check to the head.
[RELATED: Sharks' Marleau doesn't expect punishment for hit on Rust]
Rust, who had his head down on the play, has been an impact player for Pittsburgh the entire playoffs. His loss in Game 2 on Wednesday would be fairly significant.