PITTSBURGH — Conor Sheary started the season in the minor leagues.
Safe to say the Pittsburgh rookie is not heading back there anytime soon. If ever.
Sheary’s shot from just inside the left circle zipped by Martin Jones’ glove and into the net 2:35 into overtime to give the Penguins a 2-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks on Wednesday night and a 2-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Final. Game 3 is Saturday night in San Jose.
Sharks defenseman Justin Braun tied it with 4:05 left in regulation but San Jose fell to 0-4 when pushed to overtime in the playoffs. Sidney Crosby won a faceoff in the San Jose zone and dropped it to Kris Letang. Letang feigned a shot and instead fed it to Sheary, who quickly whipped it by Jones for his fourth of the postseason and second of the series.
Phil Kessel picked up his 10th goal of the playoffs for Pittsburgh and Matt Murray made 21 saves to help the Penguins moved within two victories of their fourth championship.
The Sharks blamed themselves for their shaky start in Game 1, with defenseman Brent Burns admitting the spectacle of playing the franchise’s first Finals led to spending a large portion of the first period standing around and watching the Penguins take an early lead on the way to an eventual 3-2 victory.
Burns and his teammates promised repeatedly they would be sharper and more focused faced with the prospect of heading home in a 2-0 hole, pointing to their 5-1 record this postseason in games immediately following a loss as proof of their resilience.
While the Sharks were better Wednesday, the sustained push the Penguins were expecting from the Western Conference champions failed to materialize until it was nearly too late. Pittsburgh did the two things that have been the club’s hallmark since coach Mike Sullivan took over for Mike Johnston in mid-December, controlling the puck and forcing the San Jose to go a full 200 feet to create chances.
Most of the night, the Sharks struggled to make it halfway there. Pittsburgh’s forecheck made San Jose labor just to get the puck in the offensive zone and once there, the Penguins kept throwing black-and-gold glad bodies in the way. San Jose stressed the way to get pressure on the 22-year-old Murray was by creating second chances. The Sharks instead were often one and one, if they managed to get the puck on the net at all. Outside of three separate shots from Tomas Hertl that clanked off the post and out of harm’s way, Murray was rarely tested for the first 50 minutes.
Still, it took time for Pittsburgh’s heady and hectic play to translate into a goal, with the group that’s been Pittsburgh’s best line for the last three months finally breaking through against Jones just before the midway point.
Thrust together as an experiment when Evgeni Malkin went out with a left elbow injury in mid-February, Kessel, Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino have rapidly evolved into Pittsburgh’s most dangerous line during the postseason. They began the night with 90 combined points in 34 games, and added to it during another typically aggressive shift when Hagelin stripped it from San Jose defenseman Roman Polak and slipped it to Bonino in the slot.
Bonino, who put in the Game 1 winner with 2:33 remaining from a similar spot, slipped it to Kessel on the door step. The pass was heading for the net but Kessel nudged it in anyway just to be sure.
It appeared as if it would be enough to wrap things up in regulation until Braun found a moment of joy in the midst of a difficult time for his family. Braun’s father-in-law, former Flames and Blackhawks center Tom Lysiak, died Monday following a lengthy fight with leukemia.
Braun remained with the team, pledging to pay his respects to Lysiak before Game 3. His second career playoff goal — a shot from just outside the top of the right circle that made its way under Murray’s glove and off the post before crossing the line to give the Sharks a needed jolt with their chances at a first championships teetering.
The momentum didn’t last and San Jose headed home down two games. Only five teams in the history of the Stanley Cup Final have managed to dig out of a 2-0 hole to win.