PITTSBURGH – Nick Bonino looks the part. Thatchy beard that juts out well below his chinstrap. Nose a bit askew. The rugged forward has etched out a career making a living in tight spaces, putting his body in places on the ice that aren’t for the meek.
Those instincts, honed from years of finding order in the middle of chaos, lifted the Pittsburgh Penguins to the early lead in the Stanley Cup Final.
Bonino darted to the net and knocked in Kris Letang’s centering pass with 2:33 remaining, lifting the Penguins to a 3-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks in Game 1 on Monday night.
Pittsburgh recovered after blowing an early two-goal lead and spoiled San Jose’s long-awaited debut on the league’s biggest stage. Game 2 is Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.
Letang and Carl Hagelin took turns digging the puck out of the corner behind the San Jose net when Letang emerged with it and slipped it to Bonino, who collected himself and flicked it past Martin Jones’ blocker for his fourth goal of the playoffs.
“Tanger put it right on my stick,” Bonino said. “It was a shot that wasn’t my hardest shot by any means but I kind of found a way to flip it over him.”
Bonino has spent much of the last two months as the heady, understated center on Pittsburgh’s hottest line while playing between hard-shooting Phil Kessel and Hagelin. Dubbed “HBK” – a chant that occasionally greets them when they flip over the boards and onto the ice – they have powered the Penguins to their first Cup Final in seven years. Yet it was Bonino, whose hockey IQ is considered his greatest attribute by Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan, who scored the group’s biggest goal of the postseason.
“He does all the things right and found himself in a great position and capitalized on it,” Pittsburgh forward Chris Kunitz said. “Any time you’re in the slot, get him the puck. It seems like we find a way to win when he scores.”
Rookies Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary also scored for the Penguins, though Rust left in the third period after absorbing a shot to the head from San Jose’s Patrick Marleau. Matt Murray – who like Rust and Sheary spent a significant amount of time this season with the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton – finished with 24 saves.
Jones made 38 stops but couldn’t get over in time on Bonino’s knuckler. The Penguins threw 41 shots at Jones, the most he has faced in a regulation game during the playoffs. Marleau and Tomas Hertl scored during San Jose’s dominant second period, but the Sharks spent a large portion of the third period on their heels and their dynamic power play failed to record a single shot when Ben Lovejoy went to the penalty box with 2:09 to play.
“They played their game for longer stretches than we did and that’s what happens,” San Jose coach Peter DeBoer said.
The Sharks made it to the first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history by rebuilding themselves on the fly. Two years removed from a brutal collapse from a 3-0 series lead in the first round against Los Angeles, San Jose ended a 9,005 day wait to play in the NHL’s championship round by relying on a tough, aggressive style that squeezes opponents with a relentless forecheck while limiting chances in front of Jones.
Yet veterans Marleau and Joe Thornton – the top two picks in the 1997 draft held in Pittsburgh who had waited nearly two decades to make it to the league’s biggest stage – insisted the Sharks were hardly satisfied after dispatching St. Louis in a cathartic Western Conference finals.
Maybe, but the Sharks looked a step slow – maybe two steps slow – while searching for their footing early on against the Penguins, who rallied from a 3-2 deficit to edge Tampa Bay in seven games to advance to their first Cup Final since 2009.
Rust, who surprisingly made the team out of training camp and became an unlikely playoff star by scoring both of Pittsburgh’s goals in Game 7 against the Lightning, gave the Penguins the lead 12:46 into the first when he slammed home a rebound off a Justin Schultz shot for his sixth of the postseason, a franchise record for playoff goals by a rookie.
Less than a minute later, Sheary, who didn’t become a regular until the middle of January, made it 2-0 when Sidney Crosby whipped a blind backhand cross-ice pass to Sheary’s stick. Sheary’s wrist shot from the right circle zipped by Jones, and the Penguins appeared to be in complete command by overwhelming the Sharks in a way few have in months.
Maybe it was the Penguins. Maybe it was jitters.
“You try to keep everything normal but you’ve been dreaming about it for a while,” San Jose defenseman Brent Burns said. “Now we know what we’re in for and we’ll be better.”
San Jose regained its composure during the first intermission and responded with a big surge. Hertl jammed a power-play shot from just outside the crease between Murray’s legs 3:02 into the second to give the Sharks momentum. Late in the second, Marleau collected a rebound off a Burns one-timer behind the Pittsburgh net and then beat Murray on a wraparound that caromed off Murray’s extended right leg and into the net.
Yet Bonino, who arrived in an offseason trade with Vancouver, helped the Penguins improve to 9-3 at home all-time in the Cup Final by sliding to a familiar spot in search of a familiar result.
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