Penguins Successfully Not Taking the Bait

By Sidney Mahan (@PuckSniper_3)

Well, as delightfully surreal as it is, the Pittsburgh Penguins are two wins away from the Stanley Cup after rookie Conor Sheary’s goal 2:35 into overtime on Wednesday night put the Penguins up 2-0 against the San Jose Sharks in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final.

Sheary’s goal meant the Penguins have swept at home for the first two games of the Final and will head into San Jose to try to put the Sharks on the brink of being swept Saturday, June 4 in Game 3. History strongly suggests the Penguins are in a fantastic position to win it all at this point. Home teams that have taken the first two games of the Cup final eventually lifted the Cup that year 33 out of 36 points (although, of the three times that these teams ended up losing the Cup final, two of them have occurred in the past seven years. Make of that what you will).

Meanwhile, San Jose, playing in its first ever Stanley Cup Final and yet to grab its first ever win in the fourth round of the playoffs, has been getting distinctly rattled already. It’s not hard to see that by Game 2, the Sharks were getting clearly and visibly frustrated. A lot of the questionable behavior on the ice and off the ice was courtesy of San Jose.

At one point Wednesday night, Penguins power forward Patric Hornqvist, who had been making some great hits all night, crushed Sharks forward Tomas Hertl along the boards. Hertl wasn’t happy for some reason, and the two of them had a little scuffle that was too innocent to deserve much attention – that is, until Hertl clocked Hornqvist with a punch to the head. Another little incident happened with Penguins captain Sidney Crosby pressed Sharks forward and ex-captain Joe Thornton against the boards, resulting in this naughty, six-year-old tantrum stuff from “Jumbo Joe”:

Jun-01-2016_21-41-44.0.gif
Joe Thornton may have overreacted a little to getting pressed into the boards by Sidney Crosby, deciding to first punch Crosby’s helmet off and then add a dangerous crosscheck to the back of Crosby’s head.

And then there was Logan Couture’s comment after the game. Couture seems to have been frustrated with Crosby’s faceoff wins, one of which directly led to the play that set up Sheary’s OT goal, saying:

“He times them and they don’t kick him out for some reason probably because of who he is.” – Sharks forward Logan Couture on Sidney Crosby’s faceoffs after Game 2 of 2016 Stanley Cup Final (via @CraigCustance)

This little quip has already drawn plenty of ridicule and criticism and has led to the now popular sarcastic hashtag #SidneyCrosbyCheats, with plenty of people on Twitter mocking Couture’s crybaby attitude (recognize yours truly somewhere in there?):

Yeah, which reminds me, if you’re for some reason in a bad mood, just read the tweets for this hashtag. It’ll cheer you up in no time.

Anyway, these are just a few examples of the way the Sharks are dealing with getting stuck in a hole this early. For the Penguins, pushing San Jose past breaking point and making them so obviously frustrated can only add to their advantage. A huge aspect of the Stanley Cup Final is emotion, and whether or not a team can master those emotions is usually a pretty good indication of who is primed to win it all.

But what’s even better for the Penguins is the way they have reacted to this sort of behavior from the Sharks. The Penguins know they have the Sharks in a dangerous position, and one of the worst things Pittsburgh can do to lose that advantage is to take the bait and try to retaliate. When teams get frustrated, they recklessly try to needle the other team into losing their temper as well. The Sharks would like to get the Penguins to fire back and lose their cool too, but so far the Penguins have done a beautiful job of staying disciplined. One of my keys to success for the Penguins that I had before the series was to avoid taking unnecessary penalties and bring in San Jose’s dangerous power play, which especially meant avoiding retaliatory penalties and being sent off for stupid, unsportsmanlike behavior. So far, I’m pleased with the way the Penguins have avoided this. They have been the more disciplined and more calm, cool, and collected team on the ice.

Take the reactions to the three examples of the Sharks’ frustration that I’ve mentioned so far. After taking the punch from Hertl, Hornqvist did not pursue him, but just returned to playing his effective, hard-checking game to the final buzzer. And take a look at the GIF I’ve provided of Thornton’s tantrum on Crosby. Zero reaction from Sid. I’m inclined to say most players’ instinct would have been to turn around and give Thornton a piece of their mind (with their mouth, fist, or both), but Crosby ignored Thornton, moved on, and eventually helped conduct and set up the game-winning play. That’s a much better alternative to Sid getting himself in the box for roughing or getting tossed, and it’s the kind of behavior you want to see from a captain. And as for Logan Couture’s comment on Crosby cheating on faceoffs? When asked about it, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan had absolutely no interest in the complaint.

“I have no response to it. My main concern is about our hockey team and our mindset, our determination and the focus of our group. That’s where my main concern is and that’s where I’m going to use all my energy.”

Sullivan also added that he is not worried about the comments affecting the enforcement of faceoffs for the rest of the series.

“I’m not concerned at all… All centers, when they’re taking faceoffs, they’re trying to get an edge. That’s just the reality of it. They’re doing the same thing that our guys are doing. The way I look at it, that’s all part of being a center-iceman and trying to figure out ways to get an edge and be successful. So, Sid’s not doing anything that their guys aren’t doing…Quite honestly, it really isn’t worthy of a response. So, as I said before, my main focus is on our group and on our mindset going into this Game 3. We want to make sure we focus on the task at hand.”

These are exactly the types of ways in which the Penguins should and are giving a response to irritated actions on San Jose’s part. It doesn’t make sense for Pittsburgh to even bother firing back. The Sharks may be trying to jab, but it’s the Penguins who are up 2-0 in the Stanley Cup Final. It’s the Penguins who are quickly taking command of the series. The Penguins trying to respond to sore-loser attitudes would be about as low as a team deciding to take a fight in a game where they’re up by a couple of goals. It’s unnecessary, and it would be giving momentum to the losing team.

Frustrated is a good place to keep the Sharks at. As it is, this series has seen the Penguins break down an opposing team the way they have throughout the playoffs. Pittsburgh’s speed has undressed the New York Rangers, the Washington Capitals, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and now the Sharks, forcing these teams to try and play hockey that differs from their preferred styles. So to now have a Sharks team that is both struggling to play their kind of hockey and struggling to keep their attitudes in check, the Penguins have set themselves up for success. As long as Pittsburgh manages to stay disciplined and maintains giving a cold shoulder to the Sharks’ desperate behavior, they keep their solid advantage in this series. It’s safe to say that, once again, the emotion and passion that is associated with the Stanley Cup Final will either make or break teams as they pursue the holy grail of hockey.

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