By Dan Scifo
PITTSBURGH — Early nerves got the better of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had a chance to win the Stanley Cup at home. Admittedly unsettled at the outset of Game 5, they allowed the San Jose Sharks just enough of an opportunity to capitalize.
San Jose took an early lead and Martin Jones made it stand stopping the final 31 shots he faced as the Sharks avoided elimination with a 4-2 victory on Thursday.
“The adrenaline was definitely going,” Penguins’ goaltender Matt Murray said. “A little bit jittery, a little bit nervous at the start, but I really settled in after that.”
The normally reliable and unflappable Murray had won 14 of 20 games in the playoffs, but he struggled early, allowing three goals on seven first-period shots. The 22-year-old rookie settled down to stop the final 14 shots he faced, but his teammates couldn’t solve Jones, who finished with 44 saves.
The Penguins had a chance to win their fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history and first since 2009. Pittsburgh remains in front, 3-2, in the best-of-seven series and will get another chance to win it all on Sunday.
“They were playing to try and get it back home,” Penguins’ captain Sidney Crosby said. “I’m sure that was their mindset and we definitely wanted to close it out. It didn’t happen, so we have to regroup and make sure we’re ready for the next one.”
Brent Burns, Logan Couture and Melker Karlsson scored first-period goals for the Sharks. Joe Pavelski, the playoff leader in goals, sealed it with his first of the series and 14th of the playoffs. Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin scored for Pittsburgh also in the first as San Jose held a 3-2 lead through two periods.
The Penguins held a 46-21 advantage in shots, but couldn’t come up with the tying goal. Jones was the difference as he made a pad save on Nick Bonino from the top of the crease and later stopped Conor Sheary in the slot.
“He made some good saves,” Crosby said. “We were right there. “I thought we did a lot of good things.”
Pittsburgh appeared primed to celebrate a championship on Thursday.
The teams played in front of the largest crowd in Consol Energy Center history, some fans paying well above $1,500 for standing-room-only tickets and their chance to witness history. City officials estimated an additional 20,000 residents flooded the area, shutting down streets outside the arena, while 10,000 more filed in at a second location to watch the game on big screens.
It would’ve been the first major championship won in the city of Pittsburgh since Bill Mazeroski’s walkoff home run for the Pirates in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series.
Instead, the Sharks had other plans. San Jose, appearing in its first Stanley Cup Final, is trying to become the first team since Toronto in 1942 to rally from a 3-1 deficit to win the Stanley Cup.
“The elimination game is always the most difficult,” Penguins’ coach Mike Sullivan said.
The Penguins and Sharks combined for four goals in the first five minutes on Thursday, the fastest to start a Stanley Cup Final game in NHL history.
Burns opened the scoring 1:04 into the game, giving the Sharks their first lead of the Stanley Cup Final. It was the first time Pittsburgh trailed in regulation since Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final against Tampa Bay. Couture tipped Justin Braun’s shot behind Murray less than two minutes later to make it a 2-0 game.
Malkin quickly responded for Pittsburgh with a power-play goal and Hagelin tied the game 22 seconds later. Karlsson put the Sharks ahead after a wild first period, taking a no-look drop pass from Couture before putting a shot under Murray’s glove from the slot.
That proved to be enough for the Sharks.
“We knew we were going to have to bring our best,” Sullivan said. “We did a lot of really good things out there.”