The last team to do what the San Jose Sharks are asking themselves to do -- win the Stanley Cup after spotting the foe three wins -- was the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs. In fact, they did it after falling behind Detroit not just 3-1, but 3-0, which as we all know from our reading is the Sharks’ enduring 2014 memory.
Ahh, yes. History repeating itself.
On the other hand, the Sharks could also march into Pittsburgh Thursday, play as they have in the first four games of this series, and become the first Stanley Cup finalists to have never played with the lead at any point in any game since 1960, when Montreal swept Toronto for its fifth consecutive Cup.
That series, if anything, has had less drama than this one, in that those Maple Leafs not only never played with a lead but were only tied for 26:03, or a period and a third of the 12 the two teams played.
But this one is close to that medieval standard. The Penguins have stolen San Jose’s lunch in all three zones, in all situations, in all four games, and the closeness of the games is as close to a tribute as the Sharks can truly manage. They aren’t dramatically worse than Pittsburgh the way the ’60 Leafs were when compared to the Canadiens, but they are at least measurably worse nearly all the time.
In other words, there’s backs-against-the-wall, and then there’s shoved into the drywall so that your entire silhouette is embedded there.
Which is why San Jose, for all the good things it has done this season, for all the reputations salvaged in this year and the promise the future holds, needs to win Game 5 and do it convincingly. They have been found wanting in all areas save goaltending and given their postseason resume, making this Final and then leaving this imprint would almost be worse than not making it at all.
Almost, that is. One should never not want to make the Stanley Cup Final, unless one is Arnold Rothstein, and he’s been dead for even longer than the 1960 Leafs.
Playing with a lead is demonstrably easier than not, so head coach Peter DeBoer’s concerns about the Sharks’ inability to get a lead and defend it is valid. But San Jose has played with a two-goal deficit for only 37:36 of this series, so the real issue here is their inability to respond to Pittsburgh’s one-goal leads. The Pens aren’t supposed to have a defense good enough to do this (and that was even before they lost veteran Trevor Daley), and Matt Murray is a rookie facing the fourth highest-scoring team in the league.
So the issue turns back on the Sharks, who aren’t shooting enough because they pass too much seeking out the perfect spot, or are settling for too many shots at distance, or aren’t winning any battles in front of the net. They have helped make Murray’s passage an easy one by failing to control the Penguins’ zone, and they have been unable to create many power play chances.
So either Pittsburgh is simply better at too many things (very likely), the Sharks are trying to be too fine while over-respecting Pittsburgh’s speed (perhaps, though not respecting Pittsburgh’ speed carries its own dangers), or San Jose isn’t forcing the issue enough to take advantages when they are not readily given. In sum, San Jose has failed to be truly assertive for any extended stretch of time in any of the four games because Pittsburgh is dominating the time, space and pace, and the Sharks are paying for that crime.
These are all vague platitudes in the end, and further study isn’t exactly required. San Jose plays hard but not efficiently, earnestly but not desperately, and these are desperate times. Not desperate in that pick-the-line-combinations-out-of-a-hat way, but desperate in that force-the-play-before-the-play-forces-you way. Matching the Penguins is merely a euphemism for chasing the Penguins, and chasing the Penguins is a euphemism for a consolation medal and a juice box.
Nothing is over until it is over, to be sure, and visiting teams down 3-1 and trying to win Game 5 in any series are a daunting but not impossible 43-60 (8-14 in the Final). (The fact that teams up 3-1 are 31-1 to win a Final series is a statistic for another day.)
The point is, though, that while there is skill and daring and obstinacy in these Sharks which can be brought to beat Thursday night, they have displayed almost none of it so far. This, then, is the show-or-go game, and history awaits. In the best case scenario, they can be the 1942 Maple Leafs, or in the worst, they can be the 1960 Maple Leafs. The choice is not necessarily theirs, but they are running out of time to force the choices from being made unilaterally by the Penguins.