SAN JOSE, Calif. – Matt Cullen remembers the feeling.
It was 2006, as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes. They had a 3-1 lead against the Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup Final, and a chance to close out the series in five games on home ice. The Oilers beat them in Game 5, in overtime. Then they beat them in Game 6, before Carolina closed them out at home for Cullen’s only championship in the NHL.
He remembers the feeling, and he felt it again after Game 5 against the San Jose Sharks on Thursday night in Pittsburgh. And the feeling was, and is, “pissed off.”
“We have to carry that chip on our shoulders and go after it. This is a situation where we felt we played well enough to win,” said Cullen. “We missed our opportunity last game to do it at home. We would have loved to.”
Then again, the fact that Game 5 felt more like a coronation game than an elimination game factored into the team’s slow start against the Sharks, who left the first period with a lead for the first time in the series. Players like Ian Cole, for example, saw their three-mile drive to the arena balloon to 30 minutes in the car because the streets were so jammed with fans around the arena ahead of the game.
Cole said getting away from that kind of atmosphere, and back on the road, could actually be beneficial in trying to close out San Jose.
“You always tend to play a simpler game, a smarter game on the road. You’re not trying to impress anybody. You don’t have 15 people from your family there to celebrate. You can buckle down and play a simpler, smarter, harder game,” he said.
Playing a simpler game is also what’s required when the opposing goaltender had his best performance of the playoffs, as Martin Jones did in that 44-save season-salvaging Game 5.
“He played lights out. He played very, very well,” said Cole. “I think when a goalie’s that hot, the only way to beat him is to take his eyes away, Their ‘D’ is really good at boxing out, really good net-front. It’s going to be a challenge. But our forwards are up for it, for sure.”
One of those forwards, Chris Kunitz, said the key to beating Jones is win the positional game with him. “He’s a really good positional goalie. He takes advantage when guys put their heads down and shoot,” he said.
But solid positioning can quickly turn into being out of position if Jones’s aggressive challenge of shooters results in second-chances for the Penguins.
“The thing you have to be better with is that second and third chance. Things that make it tough for him to get back to his crease when he plays above it,” said Kunitz.
And, of course, getting more traffic in front of him. “We have to do better things around him. Maybe get some more screens. Get more bodies in front of him. That seems to give him problems,” said Kunitz. “If you’re one and done, and the puck’s going to the corner, that’s not going to help you. We want to hit him with shots, have them lay around the net, beating their guys for rebounds. That’s how you beat a good goalie.”
The Penguins will have to beat a very good goalie to win the Stanley Cup on Sunday night, after failing to do so on home ice.
“It would have been a storybook way to do it. It didn’t work out that way,” said Cole.
Hey, lose Game 6, and there’s another chance to win it in Pittsburgh, right? Don’t you want a Game 7 on home ice, like Matt Cullen had with the Hurricanes?
“No, ideally not,” said Cole. “As much as you’d like to win it at home.”
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