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June 7, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Game 4 San Jose postgame

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There was a weird dichotomy in the Penguins’ 3-1 win over the San Jose Sharks tonight.

The victory was, at the same time, a testament to the team’s newfound depth and its long-held star power.

The first goal of the game was scored by Ian Cole, breaking a 104-game drought. The third was scored by Eric Fehr. They came on the heels of big goals by Ben Lovejoy, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary, among others, in recent games.

Pick your poison, coach Mike Sullivan said the other day, and he’s right. It’s hard to defend a team that attacks in waves.

It’s even harder to defend a team that attacks in waves and gets big performances from its star players, and that’s what Evgeni Malkin provided tonight with a goal and an assist.

Malkin’s night was most remarkable because he, his teammates and his coach talked for two straight days about the scoring slump he was in. And then he promptly went out and snapped it.

“We’ve seen him do it so many times,” center Matt Cullen said. “He’s such a big part of the team and he demands a lot of himself. To see him come out like that in a big game, when he has publicly called himself out a bit, it’s pretty impressive. That’s what the great players do and he was no exception tonight. He did a heck of a job.”

Some other postgame quotes:

— Sullivan on Malkin: “I thought he was really good, not just because he got on the scoresheet. Obviously that’s great for him and great for us, but I thought his overall game was really good. He played at both ends of the rink and when he plays that way, he’s so hard to defend. It seems like the puck follows him around.”

— Malkin on the power play: “It’s simple. If you want to win, we have to use our power play. We didn’t score for three straight games, but it worked tonight. It’s easy when you score. It feels much better. Just move the puck and it feels great.”

— Letang on Malkin recording his first points of the Final: “It’s huge. It’s huge for the confidence. People always look at Geno like a guy that’s going to rack up points and be really good offensively, but playoff hockey, it’s tough to score. When you get a big goal like that, it’s good for your confidence.”

— Cullen on Matt Murray, who had an outstanding, 23-save bounce-back performance: “Matty was up to the challenge. It was good to see him come up with the effort he did tonight.”

— Sullivan on Phil Kessel, who had two assists: “I love Phil’s overall game. Not just tonight, I’ve liked it through this whole playoffs. Phil’s game right now, when you watch him play, for me, when I watch him play, I say to myself, ‘He’s committed, he’s committed to helping us win. He’s playing at both ends of the rink. He’s such a scoring threat offensively.’

— Sullivan on why the Penguins haven’t trailed, even once, in this series: “I don’t know. I give our players a lot of credit. I think we’ve had pretty good starts. I think everybody’s been focused right from the drop of the puck, trying to gain momentum right away. Anytime you can score the first goal in a game, it really increases your chances. I think our guys are just focused on trying to play the game the right way. When the opportunities present themselves, we’re trying to take advantage of them.”

Bye for now,

jb

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June 6, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Game 4 San Jose pregame

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A couple of bits of serious business and some fun and games before Game 4 tonight:

— Olli Maatta was the only regular who skated as the Penguins held an extremely optional morning skate. Maatta said afterwards that he’s fine, that a Brent Burns shot he blocked in Game 3 only caused a bruise. I don’t expect there will be lineup changes, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

— The temperature in San Jose right now is 75 degrees with 54 percent humidity. Hopefully that helps the ice conditions.

— A particular pair to watch in Game 4 is Maatta and Ben Lovejoy. In Game 3, Lovejoy had a goal and an assist and was a plus-2. Maatta had an assist and was also a plus-2. But they were the worst possession players on the Penguins roster by far, playing a Gill-Scuderi type of game, hunkering down in the defensive zone and blocking 10 shots between them.

— Sullivan said the Penguins had a difficult time with San Jose’s defensemen pinching along the walls in Game 3, which hampered their transition game. Sidney Crosby mentioned that in his postgame comments Saturday night as well. It’s something the Rangers and Capitals did to the Penguins as those series went on. I don’t remember the Lightning doing it too, but they probably did. Anyway, Sullivan’s comments on that situation:

“I think when we’re at our best, we get back to pucks quickly and we use our mobility and our stick skills to come out of our end zone efficiently and when we do that, it sets up our overall game. I thought they really established strong pinches on the walls. That’s an area where we have to improve and get better to be able to handle those better to come out of our end zone. We’ve spoken about that as a team. It’s not anything we didn’t expect. We’ve seen it throughout the course of the playoffs. It’s not anything we’re not used to. We just have to be better at it.”

— Sullivan also discussed Evgeni Malkin’s scoring slump:

“I’ve said this all throughout the playoffs with our top players. Of course we’d like them to score. When they score, it certainly improves our chances of winning games. But when they don’t score, they still have an impact on the game. Those are the discussions we’ve had with Geno and Sid and players of that type. As long as we’re playing the game the right way and we’re taking what the game gives us so we don’t become a high-risk team because we’re forcing plays to try to score that aren’t necessarily there, if we play the game the right way, they’ll score. And I believe that.”

OK, now to the fun and games. Through Game 3, 27 players have scored a goal for the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final in franchise history. How many can you name?

Bye for now,

jb

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June 6, 2016
by Bill West


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Shot count, shot quality and scoring

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Only four times this postseason did an opponent finish with more shots on goal than the Penguins. The last incident came in Game 4 against Washington.

What the Penguins’ fairly regular edge in shots represents as it relates to success depends on who you ask. Fans have grown wiser over the last couple seasons about the merits of shot attempts versus shots on goal, but I sense a good many out there still strictly care about what gets to the netminders (and even more so, what gets past them). It never fails to amuse me when a tweet along the lines of “I don’t care about any of that shot stuff as long as we win!” pops up in my notifications.

The outcome of Game 3 — a 3-2 overtime win for San Jose, which tallied 26 shots on goal and allowed 40 — inspired some reaction from fans that I considered surprising. And what Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said after practice on Sunday only added to the intrigue from my vantage point.

“They shoot from everywhere,” DeBoer said of the Penguins. “You do have to look at quality versus quantity. I don’t think it’s as easy as looking at the shot clock and saying you’re getting dominated because they’ve got 40 shots and you’ve got 26. I don’t think the game is that simple. They get pucks to the net. We can probably do a better job of limiting that, getting in some more lanes.

“Historically during the year, we’ve been one of the best shot-blocking teams in the league. But they fire from everywhere, every angle, all over the place, then cause confusion around the net.

“We’ve got to do a better job. But does the fact that they have 30 more shots in the series bother me? Not as much as it bothers you guys.”

I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with DeBoer, depending on the sentence. He’s probably correct about the Penguins settling for low-percentage shots at times. But because the Penguins also get those pucks to the net — a fact he acknowledges — the shot quality can’t be criticized too thoroughly. And research on shot quality in hockey has thus far revealed that, as the quantity of shot attempts grows, the effect of “puck luck,” for lack of a better term, tends to balance everything out. In other words, low-percentage shots from the perimeter eventually go in, and high-percentage looks, which are relatively infrequent to begin with, get denied.

Pens Gm 3 chances final Pens Gm 3 corsi final Pens Gm 3 SOG final

The charts from www.hockeystats.ca show us the Penguins probably didn’t “give away” Game 3 or “deserve to win” it as much as fans (and some media members) insisted. San Jose stepped up its offense in the second period and, with considerable help from Nick Bonino’s four-minute double-minor, passed the Penguins in the third in scoring chances and shot attempts. The Penguins maintained their edge in shots on goal. But to say they carried play is a little misleading.

Matt Murray actually referenced the Sharks’ higher scoring chance total on Sunday when asked if he viewed Game 4 as a “bounce back” opportunity for himself. He owned up to the fact that he gave up one bad goal and another one of debatable quality. But he was also correct to note that San Jose’s lower shots-on-goal total didn’t necessarily reflect how much of a fight the hosts put up at the SAP Center in Game 3.

DeBoer maybe (probably?) believes the Sharks will not continue to finish with negative shot differentials. If San Jose can continue to establish a better down-low cycle game, he might be right. But the numbers in this series still point to encouraging signs for the Penguins.

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June 5, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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On the ice

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Between temperatures hitting the mid-90s with high humidity and an Andrea Bocelli concert in the building the night before, ice conditions were bad for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday night.

Anyone with a television could have told you that. The puck was bouncing all over the place all night. Like a football, defenseman Ian Cole said.

But let’s take a closer look at two particular instances where the ice conditions had a really big impact on that game.

— You’ll remember the play that became Joel Ward’s tying goal started when Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang attacked two-on-two up the right wing at the end of a penalty kill. Crosby tried to one-hand a pass over toward Letang, Joe Thornton picked it off and the counter-attack was on.

You can see it at the 30-second mark of this video.

I had a chance to talk to Crosby about the play more in depth after practice today, after he had a chance to watch the video. He said the puck was bouncing as he took a one-handed swipe at it. He figured either Letang would be able to settle the bouncing puck or, more likely, it would just skitter into the far corner. A win-win situation.

What he didn’t anticipate was the bouncing puck suddenly landing flat a split-second before he made contact. The force that would have sent a bouncing puck out of harm’s way instead sent a flat puck sliding about 7 feet, right into a spot where Thornton could grab it.

— You’ll also remember the Phil Kessel breakaway in the first period that Martin Jones stopped. Here’s a link to the video.

First off, it’s a minor miracle that Kessel was able to settle the bouncing puck onto his blade to carry it into the zone. It surely made it more difficult for Kessel to get off the kind of shot he wanted to take.

But the effect of the poor ice goes beyond that. Look at how aggressively Jones comes out of his net to challenge Kessel. There’s no way he tries that under normal conditions. Under normal conditions, Kessel fakes a shot and Jones is dead in the water.

This is no way suggests the Penguins lost because of poor ice conditions. The bounces that went San Jose’s way could have easily gone their way too. It’s just a closer look into a story that has become a bigger part of the Stanley Cup Final than you’d ideally want it to.

Bye for now,

jb

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June 5, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Game 3 San Jose postgame

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I think it’s safe to say one play made the difference in tonight’s 3-2 Sharks victory in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final.

At 4:48 of the third period, Nick Bonino received a double minor for high-sticking Joe Thornton. The Penguins held a dangerous Sharks power play at bay for about 3 minutes and 45 seconds when the critical moment came.

Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang skated a puck up the right wing and attacked Thornton and Brent Burns two-on-two rather than simply dumping a puck behind the net. It didn’t work out, the Sharks countered quickly and Joel Ward slapped a shot past Matt Murray to tie the score 2-2.

Crosby explained his decision after the game. He said there was a possibility Bonino was about to leave the box and join the rush, which would have created a three-on-two. You can see where he’s coming from. A goal there kills the Sharks dead.

But instead, the Sharks won in overtime and have a chance to tie the series Monday night.

“I guess you could go back and maybe get it deep. If I had known there was two seconds left, maybe I try to curl it. It’s always easy after, but yeah, I think, looking back, it would have been a better play at this point,” Crosby said.

This discussion would be moot, of course, if Murray makes the stop. He said the puck dropped unexpectedly on him, but he also said it’s a stop he has to make. And he’s right.

Crosby circled the wagons around his 22-year-old goalie after the game.

“He was solid,” Crosby said. “He made some big saves for us. They were pressing there late and he made some saves. Overtime, he made some saves. Both goalies did. (Murray) was great. He gave us a chance after they got that goal and they got some momentum. He was really solid for us.”

Crosby also took the blame personally for the Penguins not getting anything going on their one power-play attempt in the first period. That’s unusual, not because Crosby doesn’t take blame, but because he almost always views mistakes — as well as successes — as a team effort.

“It’s probably a bit of lack of execution on the entry,” Crosby said. “Tonight, we only had the one and I made a couple of bad passes there that kind of killed momentum, especially early. Once we get in there, usually we’re able to make some plays. Tonight, I’ve got to make a couple better plays.”

Some other notes from tonight from Crosby’s perspective:

On the game overall: “We had some chances. I think both teams carried the play for different times. I thought we did a good job even with the lead. We still went after them and generated some chances. We didn’t sit back. If anything, we can take that away.”

On the Penguins blocking an ungodly number of shots (38): “I think when you look at their defensemen, they get any puck back to the point, they’re just letting it go. Sometimes you’re forced to have to block more because of that. I think all of our forwards and defensemen are willing to block them if they need to. Obviously, if you’re able to block less and play down in their end, that’s beneficial, but sometimes you gotta defend a little bit.”

On the poor ice conditions: “Both teams are using the same ice. That’s to be expected this time of year in San Jose.”

On the 4-foot zone around the boards: “I think we’ve got better. I think we’ve got to execute better, win some more of those battles. They were winning some of the wall battles that we are really consistently are strong in. Tonight, we were just OK. We gave ourselves a chance to win, but usually that’s an area where we really take a lot of pride in being good there.”

Bye for now,

jb

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June 5, 2016
by Bill West


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SCF Game 3 GIF-cap

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San Jose cut into the Penguins’ series lead in the Stanley Cup Final with a 3-2 overtime win in Game 3 on Saturday night at the SAP Center.

Feel free to let the following GIFs ignite your rage. Or maybe they’ll help you feel better about the Penguins’ performance. Guess it depends if you’re a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty kind of person.

Ugly allowance: The Joel Ward goal, which snuck between Matt Murray’s arm and leg, left a lot of Penguins fans shaking their fists. Even Mario Lemieux got in on the action.

Lost in the moment: San Jose’s first goal also represented a relatively low moment for Murray, who apparently had no idea a shot was coming.

Tough as nails: There’s a noticeable lack of GIFs from the game tonight, so this will have to be the closing image.

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June 4, 2016
by Bill West


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Getting real about Game 3

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Neither San Jose coach Pete DeBoer nor the most vocal of his players considered the Sharks’ performances in Game 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Final as particularly poor. They referred to what they viewed as costly but infrequent mistakes as difference-makers. They made every effort to dispel any speculation about panic.

“I think we’ll hold off on the funeral,” DeBoer said minutes after the end of Game 2.

He continued at another point: “You have two teams that are playing really tight hockey. One mistake changes the game. You’re not going to play mistake-free.  … A little puck luck, we win (Game 2). We didn’t. We had Nashville up 2-0, they came back and pushed us to seven. They held serve at home, we got to do the same thing.”

For the Sharks, from DeBoer on down, to insist all is relatively well at this stage is fine. That’s what teams need to say. But the Sharks can’t deny that what they experienced in two games against the Penguins differed from what they encountered during most of their other series this postseason.

Take a look at the Sharks’ even-strength shot rate metrics from the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final and how they compare to their numbers from the previous three series combined:
Sharks in SCF

San Jose got this far largely because it limited the opposition’s shots on goal and scoring chances. They have not done that against the Penguins.

DeBoer briefly addressed one theory as to why.

“I think our (puck) support, not just coming out of our own zone, but all over the ice, is always important,” he said after Friday’s practice. “(It’s) a little bit off.”

“Obviously, you have to give them some credit. Their speed pushes you into positions where if you’re off by a couple feet, you’re in trouble. … We’ve gotten used to that over the first two games. I think we’ll be much better.”

Nothing about the Penguins’ performances in Game 1 and 2 demanded much nitpicking. Coach Mike Sullivan said his skaters needed to create a little more traffic at the net front. But he even offered that half-heartedly.

Put simply, Sullivan likes what he has seen. And he should, judging by the numbers. Save and shot percentages might vary, but he knows he can trust the differentials in attempts and other metrics.

Pens playoff comp

Game 3 might change all of the rates, of course. Such is the struggle with small sample sizes. But two games in the Stanley Cup Final, the Penguins look a lot more like themselves than the Sharks.

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June 2, 2016
by Bill West


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Stanley Cup Final Game 2 GIF-cap

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Coach Mike Sullivan did not use the word “resilient” in his post-game press conference after the Penguins beat San Jose, 2-1, in overtime to take a 2-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Final. This development represented perhaps the biggest surprise on a night when the Penguins dictated play and, in the words of Carl Hagelin, “deserved more than one goal” in regulation.

Crosby the quarterback: This clip is longer than a GIF, but it’s too enlightening to pass up. Sidney Crosby literally goes to every guy on the ice before the draw that set up the game-winner.

‘HBK’ line’s Sweet Chin Music: Nick Bonino, Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel can’t kick people in the face like Shawn Michaels, so they do the most heart-breaking thing that’s allowed within the limits of hockey rules: Antagonize defensemen into turnovers the immediately lead to scoring chances.

“(Bonino) showed a lot poise making that play over to Phil, and an easy tap-in for Phil, but good stuff that he was there,” Hagelin said of Kessel’s goal.

Asked whether Kessel stole a tally from Bonino, Hagelin said: “It’s one of those things that the puck is about to go in, but it’s slow, so if he doesn’t put it in, who knows, someone might dive to get it out. So he did the right thing.”

Stop man-handling Sheary: If the rookie is going to join Bryan Rust as a legend among the Penguins, he probably should work on his celebrations. Rust had the pistol and holster move. Sheary just let Letang give him the proud older brother treatment.

The Jumbo Joe narrative: Joe Thornton entered the Stanley Cup Final with one of the most compelling individual storylines. Through two games, he’s still waiting for a highlight. In the meantime, there’s this…

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June 1, 2016
by Bill West


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SCF Game 2 pregame thoughts

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Take a guess at which forward line the Penguins entrusted most with even-strength minutes against San Jose’s top trio of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl in Game 1.

The logical conclusion is Sidney Crosby and company. After all, Crosby’s line handled the toughest matchups fairly often during the regular season and in the playoffs most notably went head-to-head with Washington’s star-powered top line for much of the second-round series.

A fine second guess would be the defense-oriented checking line of Matt Cullen, Eric Fehr and Tom Kuhnhackl. And that’s certainly closer to the correct answer.

It actually fell on the shoulders of Nick Bonino, Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin to square off against the Thornton-led trio for the largest chunk of time. On the back end, top pair Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin predictably drew the Thornton line assignment, but let’s focus on how HBK fared against the Joe Bros.

Pens h2h Game 1Hopefully most readers of this blog are familiar with War-on-Ice.com’s head-to-head game charts by now, but just to be sure, I’ll remind everyone that the general gist is big blue squares are good for the Penguins because they represent favorable head-to-head puck possession, big red squares reflect poor puck possession, and gray squares indicate 50-50 possession.

Bonino, Hagelin and Kessel accumulated just a bit more ice time against Thornton, Pavelski and Hertl than Cullen’s line. (I checked). And the results of the two lines clearly were stark: Bonino’s line won the possession battle against Thornton’s line, while Cullen’s line struggled. Part of this can probably be attributed to Cullen’s line handling defensive-zone draws. But the Bonino line performance still sticks out as impressive, if only because the HBK group often is viewed as the beneficiary of matchups against opponents’ bottom-six forwards and Joe Thornton is not a pushover as a defensive center in the least.

Here’s what Sullivan said about his logic on the Game 1 matchups after Wednesday’s morning skate:

“We have a comfort level that we can play any of our lines against any opponent’s lines. We think the strength of our team throughout the course of the playoffs has been the balance with the forward group that we have. We think we have guys on each line that have an awareness at both ends of the rink. We really like that balance. I think it makes us more difficult to place against. We chose to use Bones a fair amount against Pavelski and Thornton’s line because we think (the HBK line) has awareness at both ends of the rink. When you have offensive people that play against other team’s offensive people, the benefit of that is when they have the puck, they force those guys to have to play defense. They’re threats to score. Bones and Haggy are penalty killers, and they have very good defensive strengths or defensive skill sets. They have great awareness. They have good sticks. Bones is very good down low in the D zone. There’s a lot that we like about that line, but for me, one of the best things is if they do play against another team’s top line is they have that offensive threat, where they’re going to have to force our opponents’ offensive players to have to defend.”

To summarize: Sullivan basically believed — correctly, it turned out — that HBK’s offensive reputation would influence how the Thornton line went about its business.

The decision to match HBK against Thornton’s line proved interesting in another way: It allowed Sullivan to overwhelm San Jose’s third line — Chris Tierney, Melker Karlsson and Joel Ward — with Crosby. The biggest, bluest squares on that War-on-Ice head-to-head chart are at the intersections of the Crosby and Tierney lines. (Schultz and Cole helped the Crosby line abuse Tierney’s trio.)

This has been the theme throughout the playoffs: Opponents get to pick their poison against the Penguins and hope for the best. There’s no telling if Sullivan will stick with these matchups for Game 2 and beyond. But the onus now is on the Sharks to consider whether they need to handle deployment differently.

One other tidbit to share in the hours ahead of the opening puck drop: @TempoFreeHockey put together some insightful analysis of how individual Penguins contributed to the team’s puck possession efforts. Find the full post here. The chart I often like to study closest is the one detailing turnovers, as puck management is one of the first subjects Sullivan discusses after almost any game.

Pens individual poss turnoversThe turnover tracking numbers confirm what much of the other data indicated about Justin Schultz’s performance: It was excellent.

I highly advise checking out all of the data collected, as there’s not one chart that gives an all-encompassing view of a player’s performance as it relates to possession.

 

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May 31, 2016
by Bill West


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SCF Game 1 GIF-cap

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Selfless coworker Jonathan Bombulie was nice enough to transcribe a bunch of quotes for me last night, so the GIF recap of the Penguins’ 3-2 win over San Jose in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final will simply pair images with some of the best remarks from the victors.

Coach Mike Sullivan on Sidney Crosby: “You could see his hunger to win. He’s inspiring. I thought he was a force out there all night. He’s so strong on the puck. His speed through the neutral zone. He’s a threat. Every time he jumps over the boards, we feel he’s a threat to score or a threat to put pressure on our opponent’s defense. You can see he has that twinkle in his eye, I think. He knows we’ve played extremely hard to get to this point. When he plays this way, I think he inspires the whole group.”

And this one…

Sullivan on the Patrick Marleau head shot that knocked Bryan Rust out of the game in the third period: “He’s day to day with an upper-body injury. It’s a blind-side hit to the head. He gets a penalty. I’m sure the league will look at it.” On Tuesday, Sullivan did not have an update on Rust’s status. The NHL’s Department of Player Safety did not discipline Marleau for the hit.

Sullivan on Nick Bonino, who scored the game-winner with 2:33 left: “He’s a real calm, cool and collected guy. I don’t think his heart rate gets too high. He just goes about his job. He’s great with his linemates. He’s grest with our young players. He’s a reassuring presence, both in the locker room and on the bench.”

Chris Kunitz on Bonino as a guy who scores big goals: “Bones may not be known for a goal scorer, but he’s got a heavy stick. He can find pucks. He’s really slippery. He does all the things right and found himself in the right position and capitalized on it.”

 Matt Murray on San Jose’s second goal, which Marleau scored on a wraparound after collecting a rebound from a Brent Burns shot: “We knew they were good at getting pucks to the net from the point and shooting off the pass from the point and getting sticks on the puck. That’s how they got their second goal. It was just a point shot with a rebound. Nothing crazy. Nothing we didn’t expect.”

Phil Kessel’s observation of the day: “It was a tight game. Obviously they’re a good team. It was a battle out there and we found a way.”

 

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