By Dan Scifo
From the Point Contributor
PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins’ coach Mike Sullivan didn’t want to go through a feeling-out process during the first game of the Stanley Cup Final against the San Jose Sharks.
He wanted his team to dictate the tempo.
Consider the message received.
Pittsburgh jumped on San Jose early in a strong first period, and the Sharks rallied in the second period before Nick Bonino’s third-period goal lifted the Penguins to a 3-2 victory during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final Monday at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
“I think that’s when we play our best, when we’re on our toes and we skate,” Sullivan said. “So we try to do it in a calculated way. When I use the term ‘fearless,’ I think that word encompasses a lot of things.
“Most specifically, it’s not just, ‘Let’s not get overwhelmed by the circumstance,’ and ‘Let’s not have any sort of anxiety when we go out there,’ because the stakes are high.”
Sharks’ defenseman Brent Burns lost his stick at the start of the winning sequence and Penguins’ defenseman Kris Letang took advantage. He sent a pass from the corner to Bonino, who slid behind Paul Martin in the slot, settled the puck and beat Sharks’ goaltender Martin Jones to the blocker side. It was his fourth goal of the playoffs.
“(Letang) put it right on my stick,” Bonino said. “It wasn’t my hardest shot by any means.”
But that didn’t matter. It gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series for the Stanley Cup. Game 2 is Wednesday (8 p.m.) in Pittsburgh.
It was the first time an Eastern Conference team won the opener of the Stanley Cup final since Carolina in 2006.
“(Bonino) can find pucks,” Chris Kunitz said. “He’s real slippery. He does all the things right and found himself in a great position and capitalized on it.
“It seems like we find a way to win when he scores.”
Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary, who started the season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton opened the scoring for Pittsburgh. Rust, the Game 7 hero with two goals against Tampa Bay, scored his sixth of the playoffs — establishing a new team rookie playoff record — and has points in four straight games. Sheary scored his third of the playoffs and first goal since Game 5 against the New York Rangers, a span of 12 games played.
Matt Murray made 24 saves for his 12th win in 15 playoff games. His 12 wins are tied for fourth-most by a rookie goalie in a playoff year.
Tomas Hertl and Patrick Marleau scored second-period goals for the Sharks, their sixth and fifth, respectively. The two were drafted 15 years apart in Pittsburgh, Hertl at Consol Energy Center in 2012 and Marleau at the now-razed Civic Arena in 1997.
San Jose made its first appearance in the Stanley Cup final in franchise history. The Sharks reached the playoffs 11 times in 12 years and 18 since debuting 24 years ago in 1991, but never a final until Monday night.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile has participated in five of the last 25 Stanley Cup finals, second-most in NHL history behind Detroit. The Penguins join the Blackhawks as the only NHL teams to play in the Stanley Cup final during the salary-cap era.
They overwhelmed San Jose with its speed early on, outshooting the Sharks, 15-4, in the first period.
Rust and Sheary scored 1:02 apart, giving Pittsburgh a 2-0 lead and sending the Stanley Cup-hungry Consol Energy Center crowd into an ear-spitting frenzy as the Penguins created turnovers and generated consistent offensive pressure.
“We came out and wanted to play fast,” Penguins’ defenseman Justin Schultz said. “I thought we did really well in the first and we had a lot of puck possession and a lot of shots.”
Marc-Edouard Vlasic blocked the initial shot by Schultz, but the rebound caromed to the crease, where Rust finished the play.
Soon after, Sidney Crosby dished a perfect cross-ice backhander to Sheary, who beat Jones to the blocker side.
The Sharks used their top-ranked power-play to get back into the game.
Hertl came out from behind the net and swept a shot between Murray’s pads to cut the deficit to one for the Sharks, who entered the series connecting on 27 percent of their chances.
Marleau tied it in the final two minutes of the period on a wrap-around.
Murray stopped the initial shot from the point, but Marleau grabbed the rebound and took it to the other post, where he tucked a shot off the rookie goaltender’s skate and into the net.
And while the Sharks pushed back in the second and had their chances in a back-and-forth third, Bonino cashed in late for Pittsburgh with the decisive goal.
“Certainly, I think our players are well aware of how we have to play in order to play to our strengths and our identity,” Sullivan said. “Speed is always part of it, where we put our opponents under pressure. I think that’s when we’re at our best.”
NOTES: Teams winning Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final win the championship 78 percent of the time since 1939…The last team to make its debut in the final was Ottawa in 2007 and the last to win its first appearance was Tampa Bay in 2004…Rust and Sheary are the first pair of rookie teammates to score in a Stanley Cup final since Jonathan Ericsson and Justin Abdelkader for Detroit in 2009. Also, it was the first time since 1924 that the opening two goals of the Stanley Cup final were scored by rookies…Pittsburgh won seven of 10 one-goal games in the playoffs this season. The Penguins have won 26 of their last 35 games at home, including the regular season…Kunitz tied Tom Barrasso for seventh on the team’s all-time playoff games played list with 101. He has a career-best six-game point streak.