The Pittsburgh Penguins are on the verge of winning the Stanley Cup as they held off the San Jose Sharks, 3-1, in Game 4 on Monday night to take a 3-1 lead in the Final.
For the Penguins, they could clinch their first Stanley Cup championship since 2009 in Pittsburgh on Thursday night. It would be the first time they have clinched the Cup at home in their history.
The Penguins got the early lead on Monday night, as Ian Cole got his first goal of the playoffs, off a beautiful set-up by Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin, 7:36 into the first period.
Malkin was at the end of his shift, and instead of dumping it in it in, he held onto the puck, made a pass to Kessel.
Penguins Head Coach Mike Sullivan said of the play, “We just talked to Geno (Malkin) about not forcing plays, taking what the game gives you, being strong on the puck, not passing up an opportunity to shoot when he gets inside the dots. We’re trying to give him some common sense advice on how to simplify your game and be effective.
“He’s such an instinctive player, when he plays the game the right way and he doesn’t force things, he sees the plays that he needs to make. I think he’s very similar to Kris Letang in that regard. They’re well‑intentioned because they want to help the team win. They do too much. When they play within themselves, take what the game gives them, when the play is not there to be made, they make simple plays, that’s when we, as a group, become more difficult to play against. We don’t feed our opponent’s transition game. We force them to have to play goal line to goal line. That, for me, is playoff hockey.
“Those guys, as talented as they are, when they play that way, when the opportunities present themselves to make plays, they see them and do it. I thought that’s what both of them did tonight, but Geno in particular,” said Sullivan.
The Penguins went up 2-0 as Malkin scored a goal of his own, on the power play 2:37 into the second period.
On the power play goal, when Sidney Crosby won the draw, Malkin went straight to the net, and he said of what made him go to the net, “It’s our power play, you know. I stay on board, and I go to forecheck if he lost. After, if he win, we try switch. I don’t know, we not switch and it work. Maybe next game we play same. Usually we switch after faceoff. I don’t know why I’m stay, but it’s work.”
San Jose got back into it, as Mekler Karlsson scored 8:07 into the third to cut the Penguins’ lead to 2-1.
The Sharks kept the pressure on the rest of the way, as Penguins goalie Matt Murray made some incredible saves. Murray made 20 saves on the night.
The Penguins put the game away when Eric Fehr scored on a set-up from Carl Hagelin and Olli Maatta with 2:02 left in the third period that made it 3-1.
Sullivan said of the fact that the Penguins have never trailed in the series (Sharks won Game 3 on an OT sudden-death goal) and how they’ve been able to do it in the Stanley Cup Final, “That’s a good question. I don’t know. I give our players a lot of credit. I think we’ve had pretty good starts. I think everybody’s been focused right from the drop of the puck, trying to gain momentum right away.
Anytime you can score the first goal in a game, it really increases your chances. I think our guys are just focused on trying to play the game the right way. When the opportunities present themselves, we’re trying to take advantage of them.
“I was saying to the coaching staff after the game, this is the hardest hockey that I’ve witnessed in all the years I’ve been associated with this league just as far as how hard both teams have to work for their ice out there. Both teams defend extremely hard. You’ve got to work for every inch of ice. It’s been really impressive to watch.”
Sullivan said before the game, that if Malkin kept playing the game the right way, he truly believed he’d break through, get on the scoreboard. Sullivan said of Malkin’s performance in Game 4, “I thought he was really good, not just because he got on the score sheet. Obviously that’s great for him, it’s great for us. But I thought his overall game was really good. He played at both ends of the rink. When he plays that way, he’s so hard to defend. It seems like the puck follows him around. I just thought he had one of his strongest games of the playoffs at an important time for us.”
Penguins Goalie Matt Murray, who played most of the season in the American Hockey League is now one win from lifting the Stanley Cup. Murray said of putting that into perspective on a night like this, “Yeah, that’s a great question. I think it goes to show you, you can never predict what’s going to happen. My mindset has been this whole time to stay in the moment, take things as they come, focus on being in the present and taking things one shot at a time. I think that’s been working for me. Like I said from day one, I’m just trying to have fun through all this. It’s been an absolute blast so far. I’m going to look to keep that same mindset going forward.”
Murray said of being given the lead in each game of this series and it leaving him more at ease knowing he’s able to play with the lead, “Yeah, I think so. It’s always important to try and get the first goal. I mean, it’s always important to try and get the next one, too. We’ve been able to do that. But at the same time, my job’s to stop the puck. Whether we’re up, whether we’re down, I try to keep the same mindset.”
Sullivan said of what he did to get Kessel to buy in, to play the way he’s playing now, “I didn’t do anything. For me, Phil deserves the credit for his contribution to helping this team win. Him and I have had conversations throughout the course of the season.
We have a very transparent relationship. I try to challenge him in areas of his game where we think he can improve, get better, help our team win. Those are the types of conversations that I’ve had with him over the last four or five months.
“I think Phil has made a complete commitment to this team. We don’t get to where we’re at if Phil doesn’t play the type of hockey that he’s played here throughout the course of this playoffs. He has been one terrific player for us. He scores big goals. His offense speaks for itself. He’s dangerous on the power play. He’s dangerous off the rush.
“But I think what his teammates admire and respect, what his coaching staff certainly does, is his commitment away from the puck and to play at both ends of the rink.
“He’s a complete player right now. When he plays that way, he’s one of the more elite players in the league, in our opinion.”