Ron Cook: In true team fashion, Game 1 goals come from unexpected sources
May 31, 2016 12:40 AM
Matt Freed/Post-Gazette Penguins' Phil Kessel congratulates Nick Bonino after scoring the game-winning goal against Sharks goaltender Martin Jones in the third period of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final Monday at Consol Energy Center.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Kris Letang wasn't surprised Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Nick Bonino were the Penguins' goal-scorers Monday night in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final against the San Jose Sharks. Neither was Mike Sullivan. I had Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel going in. But what do I know?
"They've been a big part of this team for so long now that it doesn't surprise us," Sullivan said after the Penguins hung on to win, 3-2. "They've stepped up and made big plays for us, and not just scoring goals."
"They're first- and second-line players right now. They have big roles," Letang said moments after Bonino buried his pass for the winning goal with 2:33 left. "[Rust] has scored a lot of big goals for us. Sheary is playing on Sid's line. Bonino has been a big part of his line with [Carl Hagelin] and [Kessel]. That's not depth. Those guys are some of our top players."
Call it what you like.
It's just fascinating to me that two guys who started the season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton — Rust and Sheary — and a guy who got off to a slow start after coming to the Penguins in an offseason trade for Brandon Sutter — Bonino — were the offensive difference in a terrific game on hockey's grandest stage.
Rust's goal was the least surprising. He had scored twice in the 2-1 win in Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference final and scored the clinching goal on a breakaway late in a 5-2 win in Game 6 against the Lightning. Of course, he was in the right spot to jump on the rebound of a Justin Shultz shot and knock it by goaltender Martin Jones to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead at 12:46 of the first period. If there was anything troubling about this night, it's that Rust had to leave late in the game after taking a hit to the head from the Sharks' Patrick Marleau, who was given a two-minute penalty.
But I didn't see Sheary's goal coming 1:02 later that pushed the lead to 2-0. Sheary had appeared to be running out of gas in the Lightning series and was a healthy scratch for Game 5. He came back to play well in the final two games, but he wasn't among my first choices to score a big goal in the Cup final. Yet there he was, taking a perfect backhand pass from Crosby and, with Patric Hornqvist screening Jones in front, scoring on a perfectly placed wrist shot. Sheary gave the credit to Crosby, who played a marvelous game. Sullivan wasn't going to argue.
"You could see his hunger to win," Sullivan said of Crosby. "He inspiring. I thought he was a force all night."
After the Sharks finally decided they didn't want to get blown out and scored two second-period goals for a 2-2 tie, I would have bet the house that Crosby would score the winning goal. Instead, it was Bonino, who has been a big part of the "HBK" line throughout these playoffs, but mostly as a set-up man for Hagelin and Kessel. He had three goals and 12 assists coming in, although he did score the winning goal in clinching Game 6 against the Capitals after taking a perfect pass from Hagelin.
This time, the sweet pass came from Letang, who jumped in the play and came blowing into the Sharks' end. He quickly noticed that San Jose defenseman Brent Burns had lost his stick and realized, "I have a little extra time to make a play."
Let's have Bonino describe it in his typically low-key fashion.
"Tanger put it right on my stick. It wasn't my hardest shot by any means, but I found a way to put it over [Jones]."
Sullivan was much more effusive about Bonino.
"I think he's a terrific player in every aspect of the game. We use him in so many key situations, both offensively and defensively. He's brave. He blocks shots. He's got real good hands. He's a good faceoff guy. He's done so much for this team to help us get to the point. We think he's a terrific player."
So the Penguins will carry a 1-0 lead into Game 2 Wednesday night. The numbers say that's a good thing. Teams winning the first game in the final have gone on to win the series 59 times in the past 76 seasons. That's 78 percent for those of you who are mathematically challenged.
"We have become a team in the true sense of the word," Sullivan said.
For me, Rust, Sheary and Bonino are very much a part of the proof.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter@RonCookPG. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
Rust could miss time after taking a high hit
Marleau's efforts not quite enough
Sharks notebook: At 35, Ward had a long wait to get to Stanley Cup final, too
Penguins notebook: Bonino's Sharks tenure was brief
Penguins strike first, winning Stanley Cup final Game 1 against the Sharks, 3-2
Gene Collier: Penguins lay the brickwork for another Stanley Cup
Sign up for free newsletters and get more of the Post-Gazette delivered to your inbox