Game 5 of the 2016 Stanley Cup is tonight and, if previous games are any indication, it just might be the last game of the series. Not only might it be an easy win for the Pens, but for Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of art as well. The CMOA will have to loan an art piece to the San Jose Museum of Art if the Sharks manage to pull out three wins in a row, but it seems more likely that the SJMA will be sending one of their pieces to Pittsburgh. Apparently sports bettors really do come from all walks of life.
Oddly enough, those stakes were set on June 5th, when the Penguins were already leading San Jose 2-1. You can’t fault the SJMA for taking the bet, since it seemed in Game 3 that the Sharks might be set to turn things around. They had only lost the first two games of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final by one goal, and those goals were made pretty late in the game. But much like the Pens’ winning goal in Game 2, the Sharks had to go into overtime to win Game 3. It was a game where strong offense was necessary, yet San Jose has been a largely defensive team.
That strategy hasn’t been working for them. Many thought that Game 3 would leave the Sharks in a 0-3 hole, forcing them to win four games in a row if they wanted to claim the 2016 Stanley Cup. They’re in a similar hole now, and fans could be forgiven if they lack a bit of faith that the Sharks will be able to claw their way out of it. Game 4 was their worst loss to date, and the prospect of winning three games in a row (without home advantage for two of them) seems a bit far-fetched. We’re not saying it’s impossible, but it’s certainly sketchy. Below, we’ll expand on the issues facing the San Jose Sharks in terms of both offense and defense.
San Jose’s Offense
As noted above, offense is an area where San Jose has been facing issues since the 2016 Stanley Cup Final first began. They were arguably at the height of their offensive game during their Game 1 loss—the only game outside of their Game 3 victory in which they managed to make contact with the net more than once.
Why wouldn’t their Game 3 win be considered the height of their offense during the 2016 Stanley Cup Final? Well, look at how that win came about. One of their three goals was in overtime, and the second came at the very end of a Power Play that was nearly wasted entirely. A lot of that is due to the Pens putting forth a rather aggressive defense. Even with a core member of the HBK line off the ice, they held their own defensively and even looked like they would manage to score a couple of times. Meanwhile, San Jose struggled to get their act together and fumbled their way through until they finally got the puck where they wanted it to go. Their first goal of the game was an absolute bullet, but the highlights stopped after that.
Oddly enough, some of their best players are the ones who have arguably failed the most in this regard. Team captain Joe Pavelski seems to be aware of the team’s issues, and addressed the stakes at Consol Energy Center earlier today.
“Obviously we know where we’re at, but it doesn’t stop us from playing. We’ve got to go win a game, and there’s a lot of things that we can be able to do out there. At the end of the day we want a little bit better start.”
Pavelski is one of the aforementioned players who has failed to produce much during the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, but at least he knows where he stands. And he has a fair point—the Sharks seem to play better at the start, so they need to capitalize on that and make every shot count. A lot of their failed shot attempts throughout the series have been highly predictable, and many of them have been remarkably slow. If that continues, the 2016 Stanley Cup Final could easily end with a 2-1 or 3-1 loss in Game 5. But if they can find their offense, they might be able to push this series to Game 6 or even Game 7.
San Jose’s Defense
Coach Peter DeBoer has said that Pavelski’s recent games have actually been among his best, despite the fact that he hasn’t made a single goal. This could be indicative of many things, but it appears that DeBoer might be part of the problem—he seems to value defense when San Jose needs offense more than anything. Unfortunately, as evidenced by the scoreboard, their defense throughout the 2016 Stanley Cup hasn’t exactly been excellent.
In fact, San Jose’s defensive weaknesses during the 2016 Stanley Cup Final seem to mirror some of the team’s struggles at the start of the regular season. When the season began, it would have been ridiculous to think that the Sharks had any chances whatsoever of vying for the Cup. They had a lot of weaknesses at that time, with shot suppression among the greatest. They made some massive improvements in this area around January, arguably becoming one of the better defensive teams in the NHL. Now, they seem to be a bit more exposed against the Pens. And once again, it’s hard to imagine how they even made it this far.
To be fair, their performance between the pipes has been a lot better than it was at the start of the season. Even so, they have a tendency to let their goalies get overwhelmed. According to alternate captain Logan Couture, the Sharks play best when they have the lead.
“We’re doing our best to score first and get a lead. It hasn’t happened yet. I don’t know how it would change their game. I imagine they would keep playing the same way. When we have the lead, we play good defense and keep it simple.”
This is troubling for two reasons. First, the Sharks have not had the lead at any point in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. Literally their only lead was the game-winning goal in Game 3. Until that point, they were either tied or trailing. The other troubling matter is that Couture suggests the above hypothesis that DeBoer values defense more than offense might actually be incorrect. And if the Sharks really are putting more emphasis on offense, that emphasis has been met with little in the way of success. This is a team that knows their weaknesses on both offense and defense, yet just can’t seem to get past them. That doesn’t bode well.
2016 Stanley Cup Prospects
DeBoer actually thinks that San Jose has a shot at coming back from their 3-1 trail and winning the 2016 Stanley Cup, but it really doesn’t seem likely. The following quote doesn’t offer much reassurance, either:
“I thought every game we’ve created a little bit more chances to score. I think our big guys have gotten more shots off and more looks as the series has gone on. We’re doing some good stuff. But you can’t change the fact that we’ve played behind the entire series. That’s something that we have to get fixed.”
Yes, it is. But not with that offensive outlook. Getting shots off does not equate to creating more chances to score. As noted above, they have to be decent shots, and most of the Shark’s attempts have been mind-bogglingly bad ones. That’s not to say that it’s fully impossible for the Sharks to come back from their deficit. Heck, they could score 50 goals in each of the next three games and make history. But we’re not here to discuss what’s possible. We’re here to discuss what’s likely. And right now, it appears that the likeliest outcome is that the San Jose Sharks will lose the 2016 Stanley Cup to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It’s a bit frustrating, even if you’re not a Sharks fan. Compared to the rest of the postseason, it feels as if a lot of their best players have been underperforming. Watching Couture and Pavelski struggle against the Pens is a bit like watching the Cleveland Cavaliers’ performance in the first two games of the 2016 NBA Finals. So many strong assets on the team, yet none of their skill or passion seem to be translating into the performance we should be able to expect out of these players. Brent Burns, Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton—the team is rife with strong individuals. But for all their talent, Pens goaltender Matt Murray is stopping them at every turn.
Pens fans should be sure to tune into Game 5, because this is quite likely the night that Pittsburgh will be awarded the 2016 Stanley Cup (and we cannot wait to see what they do with it). The Sharks aren’t technically down and out just yet, but the chances of making a comeback are rather slim if they continue playing as they have been. Fans should maintain faith in the team, for they need all the support they can get. Bettors, however, might want to start putting their money on the Pens.