Monday Night Hockey: Two Game 6s

We’ve got two Game 6s tonight, both seeing the home team facing elimination for the second straight game.  First, in Tampa, the Lightning will try to extend their season and their +5 goal differential in this series by beating the Penguins at home — something they’ve failed to do yet in this series.  After that, the LA Kings will host the San Jose Sharks in a must-win game for the home team.  The Kings also lead that series in total goals, but only by 1.

Arguments are usually made this time of year that certain teams that are up 3 games to 2 are essentially playing “must-win” games in Game 6s, and there are times when this theory is close to correct, but those times are not tonight.

San Jose @ Los Angeles

There are some people that are still not sold on the new San Jose Sharks, and I suppose for good reason.  There’s nothing to show that the Sharks have turned the corner mentally and are all of a sudden ready to close out weaker teams.  In fact, Game 5 is evidence of the contrary.  The Sharks set themselves up for a closeout opportunity at home by breaking the Kings’ backs at the Staples Center in Games 3 and 4.  What did the newfound battle tested Sharks do with this boon?  Promptly piss it down their legs by falling behind 3-0, before eventually losing 3-1 to let LA get back on serve in the series.  It was a very Sharkian thing to do, nothing at all becoming of a hardened unit picked by many to win the west two weeks ago.  And it started at the back, where Antti Niemi had his third stinker in five games.  One of those dreadful performances turned into a San Jose win (Game 3), but it was backstopped by his fellow Finnish B-team member Antero Niittymaki.

Niemi will have to be sharp tonight to eliminate Dustin Brown and the Kings.

It will be interesting to see what kind of game the Sharks bring to LA.  San Jose has the personnel to dominate possession and shots on goal, as they did in Game 3 after they fell behind 4-0 early in the second period, or even in Game 5 when they fired 52 on Kings’ goalie Jonathan Quick.  But they also have the ability to be the old Sharks and fall asleep at the wheel like they did in Games 1 and 4.  Yes, San Jose did win both games, but they did it in a very road-like way, especially during Game 1’s overtime victory in the Shark Tank.  I know wins are wins, but you’d like to see the Sharks put a consistent Red Wingesque beating on an opponent hanging on for dear life.  Maybe that team will show up tonight and the Sharks will play like they did over the final 43 minutes in Game 3.  But the fact that we aren’t sure heading into tonight’s Game 6 is an indictment on these Sharks’ recent past.
Pittsburgh @ Tampa Bay

While the Sharks may have their dissenters, nobody would expect that this Penguins team lacks the moral fiber to close out the Lightning tonight.  After all, this team won the Wales Trophy in 2008 and 2009 before winning Games 6 and 7 against the Red Wings to claim the Stanley Cup.  And in a season that has been touted as just as impressive as either of those two, these 2010-11 Penguins finished with 106 points (#1 seed Washington had 107) despite lacking the services of the team’s top two offensive forwards in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.  All of these things have built a view of the Penguins as a team built for the playoffs, and one with intestinal fortitude.  The only question then becomes, are they actually better than Tampa Bay?
That question appears to be unanswered as of yet, as the Penguins hold a 3-2 series lead, but trail the Lightning in total goals in the series, 17-12.  Saturday’s Game 5 saw third-year goal scorer Steven Stamkos break his playoff maiden with two goals, neither of which were in garbage time.  Logic would say that Pittsburgh will right the ship and banish the mostly untested Lightning to the golf course.  But the truth is that three of Tampa’s four best players have a lot of playoff experience and success.  Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier of course took home the Cup for the Lightning in 2004, and goaltender Dwayne Roloson came within one game of doing so with the 8th seeded Oilers in the following playoff year (2006; the lockout stole ’05).  That leaves Stamkos, who just may have started to figure this playoff thing out a couple of days ago.  Tampa still does not have a good corps of blueliners, but if they can use the home crowd and keep possession as much as possible, they may be able to cover up this deficiency and force what would be a very intriguing and pressure-packed Game 7 in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.  Speaking of which, I wonder what the roster sheet would look like.  Both Crosby and Malkin are ruled out, and it is just a first round series, but man, this is hockey right?  Just sayin’…
Crosby skating in front of coach Bylsma in Tampa…
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