SAN JOSE — The Sharks host their first-ever Stanley Cup Final game Saturday neck-deep in trouble. It’s not the ideal script, but the writing’s not completely on the wall just yet.
Maybe home ice — and more important, the home fans — can help turn the tide against a Pittsburgh Penguins team that to this point has looked significantly superior to the Sharks despite a pair of wins achieved by a mere one goal, the second necessitating overtime.
They had better. If the Sharks expect to stay in this championship series, they have to win Game 3, and if they expect to make it a series they realistically have a shot at winning, they also have to take Game 4 at SAP Center.
History is not on their side. Only five teams have rallied from 0-2 deficits in the Stanley Cup Final out of 49 that have faced the predicament. Trailing 3-1, the numbers are even worse — only one team out of 32 has come back to win, and that was the 1942 Detroit Red Wings, who actually climbed out of 0-3 hole to beat Toronto. So a home sweep of Games 3-4 is paramount.
“We’re not reading a lot into where we’re sitting right now,” San Jose coach Pete DeBoer said. “We just have to take care of business here at home.”
Exactly. The Sharks, of course, have never won a playoff series after losing the first two games. But they should be buoyed by the fact that two of the five Stanley Cup comebacks in NHL history have occurred in the last seven years. The Penguins did it in 2009, and more recently, the Boston Bruins rallied from 0-2 and 2-3 deficits to beat the Vancouver Canucks and hoist the Cup.
To a man, the Sharks were talking up being back home on Friday and how it could make all the difference playing in front of a packed house screaming their lungs out in support.
“It gives you legs,” defenseman Brent Burns said. “You get energy. It’s fun to play at home. You’re comfortable. You’ve got your bed. You get the food you’re used to. You go on the road, you’re eating out. You’re sleeping in a weird bed. Both are fun, but I like my bed.”
“You can feel the energy going around the city right now,” Sharks captain Joe Pavelski said. “Everyone’s excited for this game.”
Indeed, win or lose, it seems a lot of people simply want to see the history of San Jose’s first Stanley Cup Finals game in the franchise’s 25-year history. It’s a certifiable event.
“The fans have waited a long time to have a Stanley Cup game in our building and there’s going to be great energy for it,” said 18-year veteran Patrick Marleau. “It’s going to be exciting, it’s going to be adrenalin-pumping, everybody’s going to be fired up for sure.”
The big question is whether the Sharks can channel the energy in the arena to sharpen up their own play and maybe dull some of the speed and defensive cohesion that Pittsburgh enjoyed at Consol Energy Center in the first two games of the series.
SAP Center wasn’t much of a lion’s den in the regular season as the club struggled just to fill seats, let alone generate noise. That turned around a bit late in the season, and so far in the playoffs, the Sharks are back enjoying the kind of home frenzy that used to be their trademark, and they are 7-2 in the playoffs at home at least partly as a result.
While home arena advantage is less dramatic in the NHL than the NBA, it can help a team get its bearings, bring out the best in what the team has to offer and maybe put a little fright into the opponent. To wit, Logan Couture admitted that Pittsburgh was a very tough place to play, and the Penguins were definitely fueled by their raucous crowds.
“Their fans were loud, they were passionate, they were into it,” Couture said. “It’s similar to San Jose, where you have that feel that they’re right on top of you. I’ve talked to guys who come into our rink as opposing players and they say how intimidating it is, how loud it is, how when we start well it feels like you’re playing against six or seven guys instead of five. That’s what we want to do.”
Added Justin Braun: “That boost you get when you hear that crowd going crazy when you come out of the shark head ... if you can’t get up for that and take advantage of it, you’ve got something wrong with you.”
Only one thing concerns DeBoer about playing home, and that’s distractions. It can impede focus on the task at hand.
“There’s a lot going on here,” the coach said. “I think we talked at the beginning of the Finals about limiting distractions. Got a lot of people in town, a lot of family, a lot of friends want to be a part of this. From a focus point of view, we better be focused. It’s Game 3. We don’t want to be in a 3-0 hole.”
Pavelski believes there’s no cause for worry about that. He believes the immense challenge the Penguins present will keep the Sharks grounded and not get too giddy about the spectacle of this momentous San Jose first.
“Everybody knows the situation and I think everybody’s prepared for it,” Pavelski said. “We’re looking to play a better Game 3 than we did in Game 2. This time of year, there isn’t a lot that needs to be said. Everyone’s done a nice job of showing up. We have a lot of character in the room and a lot of veteran guys, so everybody will be ready to play.”