SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The first goal.
Boy, would scoring that first one be nice for the San Jose Sharks when the puck drops for Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals on Thursday (8 ET) in Pittsburgh, with the Cup in the building and their season on life support.
The Western Conference playoff champions have been chasing the Pittsburgh Penguins all series. Not once have they held a lead in four games. As in, 0:00 of lead time.
"Most of the postseason we've been able to jump out [to leads]," Sharks captain Joe Pavelski said after Monday night's 3-1 Game 4 loss, which gave the Penguins a 3-1 series lead. "We haven't quite got that yet. Moving forward, I think that's going to play a big role in giving ourselves a chance.
"If we can get going that way, it's going to help.''
The Sharks aren't used to this. They've been front-runners all spring, jumping down the throat of the opposing team early and dictating the game from there. It was the theme of San Jose's first-round series win against the rival Los Angeles Kings.
The tables have turned, and the Sharks are playing each and every Cup finals game like they're skating up a hill, chasing all night, getting out of their system at times to force the issue and falling out of rhythm, as San Jose coach Peter DeBoer is forced to shorten the bench to find offense.
It's a tough way to win games. And it grinds away at you mentally.
"Yeah, it's tough," DeBoer said. "Again, I think when you have the lead, you can play differently. You feel a lot more comfortable getting in a four-line rhythm, putting your guys out there, trusting them. There's not that pressure that we have to create a scoring chance or score a goal. We can just manage the game, put our time in. I think they've done a good job of that because they've had the lead, and we haven't put ourselves in that situation yet. We've got to find an answer for that.
"I don't know what it is. Again, it hasn't been an issue until this series. But it's been a big issue these three games.''
They rallied with a sensible third period Monday night.Melker Karlsson scored to cut Pittsburgh's lead to 2-1 and the Sharks outshot the Penguins 12-7 in the final frame in a desperate push.
But where was that effort during a full 60 minutes?
For the opening two periods of Game 4, the Sharks looked gassed. I texted with two NHL coaches during the game who felt the same way, that San Jose's top players in particular appear to be worn down from the long playoff journey. Sharks center Logan Couture rejected that notion when I asked him about it after the game, saying his team had lots of energy early and was feeding off their home crowd's energy. But he credited the Penguins for making things hard on them.
"They're a quick team," Couture said. "They bat a lot of pucks out of their zone and then they chase them down. We did a better job in the third period of stretching them out and using our speed through the neutral zone. I thought we looked pretty quick in the third there.''
So, what now?
For starters, the captain needs to get on the scoresheet. Pavelski was the odd-on favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy when the Cup finals began, thanks to his 13 goals in 18 games during the first three rounds. He was Mr. Clutch in all three series wins against L.A., the Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues.
But he's got zero goals in four games in the NHL's championship series, and you know it's eating at him. He cares. He wants to deliver.
Is he frustrated by the donut he's put up so far?
"You know, I'm more frustrated with the wins and losses more than anything," Pavelski said. "If it's different, if it's 3-1, and you don't have anything, it's a different story. But right now, with the hole we're [in], a goal or two probably changes the outcome. The way it's been going for most of the postseason; I feel like I should probably have a bit more. Tonight was a little bit better, I shot the puck a bit more. Guys made some plays, I got some looks, got [to] find a way for sure.''
It was Pavelski's best game of the series Monday night, to be sure, despite that fact that he didn't score. After registering just four shots on goal combined in the opening three games, he put up a team-high five shots on goal in Game 4, a few from his normal office spot in the slot.
But the clean looks continue to be difficult to come by for the Sharks' offensive stars, because the Penguins have been doing a terrific job of limiting their time and space.
"[The Sharks have] no room to maneuver,'' observed one NHL coach via text Monday night.
When a San Jose player gets the puck on his stick on the offensive zone, there's usually a Penguins player draped all over him. It looks like the Sharks are stickhandling out of a phone booth.
Then again, maybe getting the first goal in Game 5 would change everything.
"There's no quit in our group," DeBoer said. "We've been the best road team in the league. We're going to show up and try to get this back here for Game 6. Until you win four, this isn't over. We've been chasing the game the whole series by not scoring first. That takes you out of your four-line rhythm. It affects all parts of your game. We've been on the other end of that in the playoffs where we've jumped out to the lead on some teams and made them change their game.
"That's the biggest thing we have to fix. We have to find a way to get on the board earlier in the game instead of chasing it all night.''
The problem is obvious. The solution not so clear.
To snatch the finals from the jaws of defeat, Sharks need to strike first in Game 5
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