The Pittsburgh Penguins were confident that three straight games without a point for Evgeni Malkin and a rare off night by Matt Murray were an aberration more than a concern.
Bounce-back performances from those two key players moved the Penguins to the brink of winning the Stanley Cup.
Malkin scored one goal and assisted on another, Murray made 23 saves and the Penguins took a 3-1 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final by beating the San Jose Sharks 3-1 on Monday night.
“He’s a world-class player,” Penguins defenseman Ian Cole said of Malkin. “He’s been going through a rough stretch. He’s been really contributing in other ways than on the scoresheet, but obviously you saw how good he is today. When he turns it on, obviously what he can do is huge for our team.”
Malkin helped set up Cole’s goal to open the scoring, then added one of his own on the power play to give Murray all the support needed.
Eric Fehr sealed it with a late goal after San Jose made a strong push in the third.
Two nights after allowing a soft game-tying goal to Joel Ward, Murray was steady throughout to put the Penguins one win from skating off with their fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history. They can do it at home in Game 5 tomorrow night.
“Just keep doing what we’re doing. Obviously we know what’s at stake,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “We don’t have to change a thing, just keep playing the same way we’re playing and the results will take care of themselves.”
The Sharks were unable to build on their first win in the final, allowing the first goal for the fourth straight game and going more than nine minutes without a shot on goal during one stretch of the second period.
San Jose have yet to lead at any point in the series other than after scoring in overtime in Game 3.
“We’ve been chasing the game the whole series by not scoring first,” coach Peter DeBoer said. “That takes you out of your four-line rhythm. It affects all parts of your game... That’s the biggest thing we have to fix. We have to find a way to get on the board earlier in the game instead of chasing it all night.”
Melker Karlsson scored the lone goal and Martin Jones made 17 saves for San Jose.
The Sharks will now need to win in Pittsburgh to give their loyal fans who waited 25 years to watch the Stanley Cup Final in the Bay Area another home game. No team has come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the final since Toronto did it in 1942 against Detroit.
“It’s disappointing to lose in front of the home crowd,” Sharks center Logan Couture said. “You see them leaving and they’re not happy. You feel like you let them down. We hope we’re back here, but we have to worry about the next one first.”
The story for the Penguins after their 3-2 overtime loss in Game 3 was how to get Malkin going after a slow start to the series, and how would the rookie Murray respond after giving up the soft goal to Ward and the winner to Joonas Donskoi.
Both passed with flying colors.
Malkin was energized from the start, helping setting up the first goal when he caught San Jose on a bad line change and sent Phil Kessel in on a rush.
Jones stopped Kessel’s shot, but Cole knocked in the rebound for his first career playoff goal.
Malkin then got his goal when he tapped in a perfect from Kessel for Pittsburgh’s first power-play goal of the series.
“I didn’t change my game a lot,” Malkin said. “I wanted a little bit more to play with the puck.”
Murray was not tested often early and went nearly the first half of the second period without facing a single shot.
“I’m just trying to have fun through all of this,” Murray said. “It’s been an absolute blast so far. I’m going to look to keep that same mindset going forward.”
The Sharks made a strong late push, and he robbed Couture, left all alone in the slot after a turnover by Kris Letang, late in the second.
Murray then stopped Patrick Marleau on a breakaway and saved a one-timer by Joe Pavelski early in the third before allowing his first goal. Karlsson beat him on a rebound of Brenden Dillon’s point shot with 11 minutes, 53 seconds to play.
However, Murray did not flinch and came up big again against Pavelski, keeping the NHL’s leading goal scorer this post-season without a point in the final.
“He’s just been great,” Crosby said. “You see tonight. They press late. They get one, they keep coming. He gets a big stop on a breakaway, a lot of scrambles there late. He’s just showing a lot of poise now, a lot of maturity.”
Fehr provided the insurance when he beat Jones on an odd-man rush with 2:02 to play.
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