No defeat has to be a total loss unless the team that fell short doesn't learn from what went wrong. The Pittsburgh Penguins, stung by a 3-2 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, said Sunday they had much to gain by dissecting the defeat that trimmed their lead to two games to one.
They did many things right. The Penguins outshot the Sharks for the third straight game, this time by 42-26, for a series lead of 113-74. And the Penguins won the shot-blocking battle by getting in the way of 38 shots, as many as they had blocked in their two home wins combined.
But Pittsburgh Coach Mike Sullivan saw enough flaws to conduct a full practice Sunday at SAP Center after the Sharks held an optional session at their practice facility. The issue for the Penguins in Game 4, to be played Monday in San Jose, will be to better capitalize on their strongest assets: their speed and dazzling skill.
"If we're coming out of our end quick and getting up through the neutral zone, then we're having success. When we get bogged down in our end, that's when we can struggle," veteran center Matt Cullen said Sunday. "For us, it's a lot about how we can come out of our end cleaner, quicker, defend better and get the puck down the other end, where we can play to our strengths.
"Sometimes a loss can, for whatever reason, help hammer that home a little more. You see it on video and you know, whereas when you win you maybe gloss over a few things. For us it's a good point to take a step back and say, 'We're playing OK. We're playing fine.' But in the Stanley Cup Final we need to have our very, very best game."
But what if the Sharks learned something too, namely, that Penguins goaltender Matt Murray might be vulnerable on high shots?
Joonas Donskoi scored the winner Saturday with a shot over Murray's shoulder, an area the Sharks targeted when they could get shots through. Murray acknowledged that he should have stopped Joel Ward's blast on San Jose's tying goal at 8 minutes 48 seconds of the third period, making this a rare less-than-stellar effort.
Murray, who turned 22 on May 25, has responded to each of his four playoff losses by winning his next start. How he responds Monday will go a long way toward determining whether the Penguins will be in position to win the Cup at home Thursday in Game 5 or if this will be a long series.
"I wouldn't really call it a bounce-back game, to be honest. One bad goal doesn't make it a bad game," he said of Game 4. "I thought I was really good all game."
The Sharks, for their part, are still trying to find ways to get more shots on net. The Penguins have been hurling their bodies at shots and getting sticks on pucks, a successful strategy. They've held Sharks captain Joe Pavelski to four shots and no points — the same Pavelski who shredded the Kings for five goals and six points in the first round, dinged Nashville for four goals and seven points in the second round, and tore up the Blues with four goals and nine points in the West final.
Pavelski said the Penguins have been blocking his shooting lanes and minimizing his time and space.
"They've done a good job," he said. "I think I've passed on a few shots recently that I haven't earlier, so it's getting back to a shooting mind-set a little bit. There's been a lot of plays where it's been almost there and they get a stick on it…. We're creating some chances. It's just that end result hasn't been there. That shot hasn't finalized. And you just stay with it and keep trying to have that puck and get open and play with it."
They'll also stay with the physicality that gave them a 47-17 edge in hits Saturday. The Sharks have outhit the Penguins, 126-89, over the first three games, but the Penguins haven't been deterred.
"Teams have been trying to outmuscle us to try and intimidate us for the last three months," defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. "The Rangers did it, Washington did it. The last series [against Tampa Bay] was a little different, but we're a team that prides ourselves on being brave, on going back for pucks, on winning pucks against bigger players, on taking hits. We need to continue to do that."
Sharks Coach Peter DeBoer likes to say that the team that imposes its will the longest will ultimately prevail. His team did that Saturday. It's up to the Penguins to show if they can turn their loss into a victory or if the Sharks' first two home games will turn out to be a win-win situation.