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Pens strike first in Cup final with potential to captivate

PITTSBURGH − The NHL loves to shoot itself in the foot at times (thank you, offside challenges). But at its core, the game can still be great some nights and that’s what we saw Monday in Consol Energy Center.

How about six more of these please?

The Pittsburgh Penguins got the early jump in the Stanley Cup final with a riveting 3-2 win over the San Jose Sharks in an opener decided by Nick Bonino’s goal with 2:33 to play.

Even in hockey-mad Buffalo, lots of you were probably locked in on Warriors-Thunder Game Seven. Fair enough. But there’s no more NHL-NBA conflicts the rest of the way, and it’s easy to say you should be in for a quite a hockey fix the rest of this series.

The opener saw the teams combine for 67 shots on goal, 41 by Pittsburgh, and split 72 hits. It was a track meet at times and it was a game that saw the ice tilted at many others.

The Penguins looked like they were running the Sharks out of the building in the first period as they outshot them, 15-4, and took a 2-0 lead on goals by rookies Bryan Rust and Connor Sheary that came 62 seconds apart.

The latter came after Sidney Crosby undressed Justin Braun so badly in the San Jose zone that the Sharks’ defenseman went to the ice when his knees simply buckled as he tried to stop and keep pace with Crosby. Sheary cut through the slot and Crosby found him with a filthy cross-ice pass.

“I saw him win his battle in the corner there, beat his defenseman, and I kind of just tried to find the open ice,” Sheary said. “He obviously has the vision to find me. He put it right on my tape.”

Was the game over at that point? It was easy to think so but back came the Sharks, with second-period goals by Tomas Hertl and Patrick Marleau to forge a 2-2 tie through 40 minutes.

Shot attempts in the first period were 27-14 in favor of the Penguins. In the second period, the figure was almost completely reversed with the figures being 27-13 for the Sharks.

“It’s exactly what both teams want to do,” Crosby said. “It’s fast hockey. You’ve got to be sharp. You can’t hesitate or have any missteps ... There’s just so much speed.”

In the end, the Penguins got a few more plays from their stars. Defenseman Kris Letang set up Bonino’s winner, not panicking with the puck deep in the zone to find Bonino in front.

“That’s his game, he generates offense for us,” Crosby said of Letang. “You could tell when he got that puck he was going to hold on to it down low and make something happen.”

“’Tanger’ put it right on my stick,” marveled Bonino. “It wasn’t my hardest shot but it found the back of the net.”

The game marked the seventh straight year the opener in the final has been decided by one goal. For a while, it seemed like this game was headed for overtime. The Bonino goal had the feeling of an OT winner, although the Penguins had to kill off Ben Lovejoy’s hooking penalty 24 seconds after the goal.

The crowd of 18,596 was wild in the final two minutes, furiously waving their gold towels in the best tradition of the Steelers. The atmosphere was super-charged right from the start and seemed to spook the Sharks in their first appearance in the final.

The moment seemed oddly too big for them in the opening 20 minutes as the Penguins blew by them with regularity in the neutral zone and had a wicked cycle game going in the San Jose end.

“They played their game for longer stretches than we did tonight and that’s what happens,” said San Jose coach Peter DeBoer. “We didn’t play our game in the first period. We stood around and watched.”

“Even though we were very good in the second but we were still turning pucks over,” said San Jose forward Logan Couture. “It fed into their transition. At the start, it really felt like we were stuck in mud.”

The Sharks were definitely jittery. And with a team full of veterans, you would not have thought that would be the case.

“It was the first time you make it to the Stanley Cup final and you dream about it for a long time,” said defenseman Brent Burns. “You probably used more energy the last couple days thinking about it then playing in a game. I sure felt it in the warmup. You just get warm, not go too hard.”

Burns was an absolute tower of power in this one for the Sharks. He assisted on both goals but his major contribution was a spectacular defensive play that came with the Sharks down 2-0 and reeling late in the first period. Pens forward Carl Hagelin, no slowpoke by any means, burst through the neutral zone and had a clear breakaway on Martin Jones but Burns hooked the puck away from behind without drawing a penalty.

It almost wasn’t fair that Burns had a key role in the winning goal, losing his stick in the corner and being unable to glove the puck to a teammate to get a whistle before Letang took control. Speed and skill can really kill and the margin is small with so many stars on both sides.

There’s a lot more to look forward to in this series.

email: mharrington@buffnews.com