There were many stars in this contest, both in terms of NHL acumen and the specific pictured performances Thursday. Only one of the latter does not call the SAP Center home, and San Jose went home happy with a 5-3 win over the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference.
In fact, only two teams have performed better so far in the 2013-14 NHL season than Pittsburgh, which remains a strong 12-6-1 against the Western Conference. San Jose now has a 16-6-3 record against the Eastern Conference, suppliers of the last six and next six opponents.
Unlike their first matchup, this game lived up to its billing as a potential preview of the Stanley Cup finals. Both teams are among the seven to already have at least 85 points with nearly 20 games remaining in the 2013-14 NHL season.
This one did not start out very well. The Penguins dominated play outside of their one penalty kill, garnering a 10-4 edge in shots for 15 of the first 17 minutes of the game. In the final two minutes of that push, they established a 2-0 lead.
First, former Shark Marcel Goc fed Tanner Glass, whose shot came off to defenseman Olli Maatta already headed to the open side of the cage in front of the crease. Antti Niemi flopped back to try to get an arm in the way but could not.
Brent Burns then took a really, really dumb penalty in the offensive zone 31 seconds later, putting a forearm to the back of Evgeni Malkin's head until the referees blew the whistle. The Penguins have the best power play in the NHL and needed 41 seconds for the man that drew the penalty to serve a goal up to Chris Kunitz on a platter.
Even as San Jose began amassing a 39-12 edge in shots the rest of the way, Pittsburgh maintained control thanks to impressive rookie goalie Jeff Zatkoff. It was not until the 28th shot in the 38th minute that he let anything get by him.
That is when a long shift by a checking line paid off for the Sharks. On a second trip into the zone, Tommy Wingels retrieved an Andrew Desjardins shot and got the puck back to Justin Braun, whose shot somehow ricocheted through an Adam Burish screen without hitting him or his stick.
It was officially the first goal from anyone on the blue line in 20 games. This came one game after former blue-liner Burns scored for the first time in 20 games.
When Matt Nieto was hit with a double-minor high-sticking penalty 2:26 into the third, the chance of catching the guests looked grim. However, San Jose had already killed two-thirds of the penalty when another long shift paid off.
After over 40 seconds on the ice, Jason Demers had the energy to block a shot, register a takeaway and feed Patrick Marleau on the rush for a second chance to beat Malkin one-on-one. This time, the all-time San Jose leader in everything was able to turn inside his defender and put a backhand past Zatkoff despite having spent more than a minute on the ice.
The Penguins responded with another Maatta goal just 21 seconds later, this time pinching down to take a Brandon Sutter feed that gave Jussi Jokinen a secondary assist. However, the Sharks tied it back up just over a minute later and never trailed again.
Joe Thornton was able to win a battle for the puck deep in the attack zone. Joe Pavelski skated in to help and threw a behind-the-back pass from behind the goal line to the slot for Burns to blast by Zatkoff for a second goal in two games.
The game stayed tied for over seven minutes, but then Pavelski got the puck to Thornton coming into the zone. With no play to set up, San Jose's captain simply sent a knuckling puck towards the net that fooled Zatkoff for the game-winning goal. Burns emphatically put his slump in his past by adding an empty-net goal with just over two seconds left after Marleau was denied by a blatant, uncalled tripping penalty.
In the end, the Sharks won most of the battles. They made up for losing one extra faceoff (29-30) with 11 fewer turnovers (15-16 giveaways and 18-8 takeaways), turned that into 25 extra shots and still got 16 more hits and eight more blocks.
Perhaps more impressively, they held Sidney Crosby scoreless on one shot. The Pittsburgh captain was on the ice for all five San Jose goals. The ability to dominate top talent will prove useful with the tough competition waiting in the Western Conference for the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs that are 21 points from being secured.