The Western Conference has dominated the Eastern Conference team so far in the 2013-14 NHL season. No one can blame the Pittsburgh Penguins after they ran their record to 4-0-0 vs. the Pacific Division through early domination of the San Jose Sharks Thursday, December 5.
The pictured stars were the difference for the Penguins in a game in which they had deficits of 45-30 in shots on goal and 75-52 in attempts. Despite those 3:2 ratios, they blocked only three more shots (19-16) and registered one more hit (27-26).
What they did better was make plays, not mistakes. They had just five giveaways but seven takeaways and won seven more faceoffs (31-24). The Sharks had just one takeaway, and their mistakes went beyond just one giveaway to pinching up, missing passes or being out of position.
After a frenetic but scoreless first period in which San Jose was out-shot 12-7, Pittsburgh captured a lead on the first shift of the second when Sidney Crosby got the puck to Brooks Orpik at the point. The stay-at-home defenseman fired it on net and Pascal Dupuis tipped it out of the air past Antti Niemi.
A big mistake led to the next goal, when Jason Demers pinched up during a line change. Simon Depres advanced the puck to Jayson Megna on a breakaway. He picked the top-left corner on Niemi to give the Penguins a 2-0 lead just 2:34 into the second.
Logan Couture lost a faceoff in the defensive zone less than three minutes later, and Crosby got the puck back from James Neal 10 seconds after that. Niemi made the save but was too far out to leave such a juicy rebound. Chris Kunitz gathered the puck and skated by the crease until he had an easy backhand.
From there the Sharks dominated play with a 31-11 edge in shots on goal over the final 34:33, but were still out-scored by the opportunistic Penguins.
Not even two minutes passed before John McCarthy made the mistake of committing his second penalty of the game. Coach Todd McLellan looks like someone out-thinking himself when he benches Mike Brown the game after he scored a goal in favor a penalty-killer who ends up being in the box for both penalties.
Ten seconds after another faceoff win to open the power play, Crosby found Neal below the goal line, who attacked the net. The rebound came to Kunitz on the opposite wing, and he slapped home the 4-0 lead.
From that point, the Penguins shut down. Brent Burns was rewarded with an assist for his work crowding the crease when Joe Thornton fed Tomas Hertl. Rather than cleaning up the rookie's rebound, the defender put it in his own net. The Sharks never got any shots past Marc-Andre Fleury on their own despite many rebound opportunities.
McLellan also made a curious move in changing goalies in the third period considering the team is on back-to-back games. It is not how much a goalie is in net but that they spend any significant time in it at all that impacts them the next day.
This could have meant either one he plays against the Carolina Hurricanes Friday will be less than 100 percent. However, it could be said Alex Stalock never really played after facing just three shots. Moreover, McLellan smartly turned the game over to the skaters that he would not as much in Raliegh.
The final goal was scored early in the third when Olli Maatta picked up the puck that Joe Vitale had rimmed around the boards and fed Kris Letang. Stalock failed to pick up the shot after having his view briefly blocked in yet another not-quite-good-enough moment for the Sharks in this contest.
Pittsburgh's success against the Western Conference is curious. Even after the win, the Eastern Conference has earned 78 fewer points in intra-conference clashes. San Jose can largely credit their 8-2-1 record in those clashes for still holding a narrow lead in the Pacific Division.
If they can get at least a point Friday, they have a chance of finishing the day first overall. If not, they could enter the weekend without the best point percentage in the NHL for the first time in since before Thanksgiving.