PITTSBURGH (AP) – The stakes are nowhere near the same: hockey immortality versus two points in the standings in the second week of a long season.
Still, the San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins expect the atmosphere to be a little more heated than the usual NHL October product when they meet tonight barely four months removed from Pittsburgh’s six-game victory in the Stanley Cup Final.
“It was obviously tough to go on that long a journey and lose the way we did,” San Jose coach Peter DeBoer said. “I don’t think there was any doubt at the end of the day they deserved to win, but at the same time I think for us it’s a chance to go in, and we’re a different team this year, and make a statement that we are a different team this year.”
The Penguins, in essence, are not. They brought back nearly the entire group that captured the franchise’s fourth championship and led to a raucous downtown parade in mid-June. A week removed from a giddy opening night in which the 2016 Cup banner was raised at newly renamed PPG Paints Arena, the Penguins are trying to focus on the next chapter instead of the last one.
That shouldn’t be a problem.
The Penguins are coming off sloppy performances in an overtime loss to Colorado on Monday and a 4-0 setback in Montreal on Tuesday. Captain Sidney Crosby – the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the MVP of the 2016 playoffs – remains out indefinitely with a concussion and goaltender Matt Murray is still on the mend from a broken hand.
Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan is focused on his team getting its act together. The fact the Sharks (3-1) happen to be next on the schedule is coincidental.
“You’ve got to bring your A-game each and every night to give yourself a chance,” Sullivan said. “But certainly, coming off the type of game we had (against Montreal) and our opponent moving forward, there should be plenty of motivation for us to make sure we respond the right way.”
The Penguins did relentlessly during the 2016 postseason, seizing control of the best-of-seven final by taking the first two games at home and eventually closing the Sharks out on the road in Game 6. The giddy celebration in the visiting locker room in San Jose will be long remembered. It also won’t mean a thing when the puck drops on Thursday.
“They’re probably going to have a chip on their shoulder and we obviously didn’t play too great (in Montreal), so we’re obviously going to have a chip on ours,” forward Bryan Rust said. “I think it’s going to be a physical, playoff-like atmosphere.”
San Jose appears just as sharp as it was last spring when it reached the Cup Final for the first time ever. If the Sharks need a reminder of how close they came, they only need look up at Pittsburgh’s banner-strewn rafters. There’s no going back, however. Another long trek to the postseason awaits. Tonight is just one more step in the process.
“It’s important that we keep building our game and trying to get better,” captain Joe Pavelski said. “We understand it’s a long ways from getting back to that position and this is a good team that we’ll be playing.”
n Murray skated with a small group of teammates on Wednesday and has been cleared to practice but there remains no timetable for his return to the lineup.
n Crosby skated early Wednesday and remains out.