The continued flattening of Martin Jones’ head for the greater glory of the San Jose Sharks had not been a priority when the Stanley Cup Final had begun. They had plenty of characters available for playing and narrative purposes, and the megasolid but not game-thieving goaltender wasn’t the first thing anyone in need of a take would necessarily bucket-list.
But that was before the series began, and before the Pittsburgh Penguins showed how this series would be engaged. Suddenly, Jones standing on his head and remaining there for hours at a time became vital, and in Thursday’s 4-2 San Jose victory in Game 5, he became the defining figure of the Sharks’ seemingly flagging chances.
His 44 saves, a significant percentage of which came in prolonged Penguin offensive flurries, allowed San Jose to survive blowing a two-goal lead gained in the game’s first 2:53 and promptly returned in game’s next 2:13. At a time when the Sharks looked, if not dead then certainly quite dead-ish, he interposed his body between the relentless Penguin attack and the beer-soaked leveling of much of downtown Pittsburgh.
Oh, there were other tales to be told, of course. First period goals from Brent Burns, Logan Couture (part of a three-point night), Melker Karlsson and an empty-netter from struggling captain Joe Pavelski made it seem like this game could get the Sharks’ higher profile players properly engaged.
The truth is different, though. Yet again, the Penguins out-everythinged San Jose to the point where Jones had to cheat the reaper often to save his mates from the perils of golf, hunting, fishing and recriminations.
Thursday, the shot attempts (76-36 for Pittsburgh) were even more hilariously out of whack than the actual shots on goal (46-22). The best 5x5 Corsi number was defenseman Brendan Dillon’s minus-one, and he played fewer minutes than anyone but fourth liners Dainius Zubrus and Tommy Wingels. In every test from math to eye, Pittsburgh’s was again the superior product.
“Honestly, I can’t give you a favorite save,” Joe Thornton said with a bemused smile before leaving the reportorial scrum. “He’s been doing that all year.”
“Yeah, he was great,” Couture piled on. “He made some big-time saves (but) he’s been playing this a long time. He’s been unbelievable for us.”
And therein lies the Sharks’ way out, but also the trap that awaits them. Losing zone time, possession time and even time to contemplate what life is like with more goals than the other guy is no way to go through life, son (Dean Vernon Wormer, Faber College, 1962). Jones may be a great comfort to the Sharks in the way he played this evening –- and frankly, throughout the spring -– but letting your goaltender fix the car, wash the car, drive the car and get you to work on time is a catastrophically bad idea if you're thinking about a parade. Put another way, Jones may win the Conn Smythe Trophy (Penguin Phil Kessel, who was unsusually quiescent Thursday, remains the leader in the clubhouse), but it will mean very little if the second paragraph includes phrases like “His brilliant play was not enough to . . .” and “Despite his monumental efforts . . .”
But just as the NBA Finals are making little sense, so too are these, because the better team has been chastened and could conceivably be done the same way again. Couture and Burns were better but the rest of the lineup was chasing rather than chased, in much the same way that the Warriors fell behind Cleveland quickly and never caught up.
The difference, of course, is that the Warriors were overmatched and after being the superior team. The Sharks began as and have remained the barely-game underdog throughout this series.
The key, though, is verb tense. The Sharks ARE still, rather than WERE, and go home for a Game 6 hoping/believing/fantasizing that they can still steal this series from those who seem its rightful owners. Martin Jones has made that an embraceable concept, and as long as he can continue to do so, the Sharks have a counterpuncher’s chance.
And if need be, he will flatten his head even more to provide a more solid base for the game-stealing rigors ahead.