When the Pittsburgh Penguins' season was on the line during the Eastern Conference final, Coach Mike Sullivan's message to his players centered on embracing the opportunity in front of them. If the Penguins can do that again Thursday at Consol Energy Center, they'll embrace the Stanley Cup.
The Penguins, who have not trailed the San Jose Sharks in regulation while winning three of the first four games of the Cup Final, are in position to win the fourth championship in franchise history. A sixth game, if necessary, would be played Sunday in San Jose. That's a trip the Penguins are determined to avoid.
"Absolutely, we're excited. We worked hard for this," center Sidney Crosby said Monday after the 3-1 victory that gave the Penguins a split of the two games in San Jose. "It's going to take our best, but to be able to go home and use the energy from our crowd is great. We know what's at stake."
Among the strengths that have carried the Penguins this far is their ability to quickly put mistakes or triumphs behind them and maintain a disciplined defensive game. The Sharks averaged 3.5 goals per game in the first three rounds but have been held to half that many, 1.75, with seven goals in four games. The Penguins' defense, which was considered softer than the Sharks' and was expected to struggle after Trevor Daley suffered a broken ankle during the East final, has been solid and gotten plenty of help from the forwards.
"It's a team defense, not necessarily a group of individuals out there," Sullivan said during a conference call Tuesday. "I think that's what's helped each player throughout the course of this postseason. They trust one another. They rely on one another. They support one another. Because of that, I think they bring out the best in each other."
Sharks Coach Peter DeBoer, speaking on a separate call, lamented his team's continued inability to score first and make the Penguins chase them, instead of the other way around. He said his team has fixed many flaws during the Final but he's baffled by its inability to get the lead. Producing good but ultimately failed scoring chances and getting a series-best five shots on goal from a still scoreless Joe Pavelski aren't consolation anymore.
"The rubber is hitting the road here, so to speak," DeBoer said. "We've got to find a way here. We're out of time."
Not quite, but they're reaching the point of no return.
DeBoer, who coached the New Jersey Devils against the Kings in the 2012 Cup Final, recalled rallying his troops after they lost the first three games.
"We took the approach of 'Why not us?'" he said. "I don't care what the record book says, that only one or two teams have come back from this situation, whatever those numbers are. Why can't we be the first team to do it?"
They weren't the first and they didn't become the second. They won the next two games but the Kings ended the series with a Game 6 rout.
Thirty-one of the 32 teams that have taken a 3-1 lead since the Cup Final adopted a best-of-seven format in 1939 went on to win. The exception remains the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, who rallied after losing the first three games to the Detroit Red Wings.
Sharks don't rule out Hertl return
DeBoer said he's hopeful left wing Tomas Hertl, who missed the past two games because of a lower-body injury, might play Thursday. DeBoer denied a report by a Czech journalist that said Hertl would miss the rest of the Final.
The Sharks' 24-20 edge in shots in Game 4 was their first edge in that category in the Final. It also broke the Penguins' 12-game streak of outshooting opponents…. The Penguins haven't trailed in the last 435 minutes and 46 seconds of playing time, going back to Game 5 of the East Final. They have lost twice in overtime in that span.