PITTSBURGH — The San Jose Sharks had the eventual Stanley Cup champions on the ropes.
Two springs ago, the Sharks held a 3-0 lead in a first-round playoff series with the Los Angeles Kings when momentum turned. San Jose lost four straight, a humiliating defeat that haunts some players to this day.
"We have some guys that vividly remember that," said Sharks coach Pete DeBoer. "They know how quickly a win can turn the momentum."
Trailing the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 in the Stanley Cup final, the Sharks are hoping to summon the same urgency that inspired a Kings comeback, beginning with a Game 5 win Thursday night that would force the series back to San Jose.
"You never know what can happen," Sharks defenceman Justin Braun said. "Hopefully we just go out there and play our A-game and see where the chips fall."
Top of mind for the Sharks, on a night when the Cup will be in the building at Consol Energy Center, is scoring the first goal for the first time in the series.
Pittsburgh has grabbed the lead in all four games, gaining an advantage with aggressive first periods. The Sharks have rallied throughout the series, including an overtime victory in Game 3, but still have yet to play with a lead.
"It's a big focus of ours to get that first one," Braun said. "It'd be nice to kind of turn the tables because it's hard this time of year always pushing back, always fighting for that goal to tie it up."
"It's a different game when you play with the lead, especially for us," added defenceman Paul Martin. "We play a different way when we have a lead."
San Jose had the second-best record during the regular season (35-6-2) when they scored first, 10-3 in the playoffs. They had arguably their best first period in Game 4, outshooting Pittsburgh 8-6, but still trailed 1-0 after 20 minutes.
Pittsburgh is 27-3-0 in the regular season and playoffs when they lead after the first and 50-2-0 when up after the second.
San Jose has improved with each game of the series, and though they fell 3-1 on Monday night their effort in defeat was strong. They gave up only 20 shots and had control for long chunks of the third period, thwarted in their comeback by Penguins goaltender Matt Murray, who stopped 11 of 12 shots in the final 20 minutes.
"I think we have gotten better game after game," said Joonas Donskoi, who scored the overtime goal in Game 3. "All we can control right now is the next game, try to get the win."
DeBoer made note of just how close the series has been, with three of the first four games decided by a goal.
Sharks assistant Bob Boughner reminded the group of the time his Windsor Spitfires rallied from a 3-0 deficit in the Ontario Hockey League playoffs opposite another one of the team's assistants, then Kitchener Rangers coach Steve Spott.
"So that was a pretty humorous moment this morning, too," DeBoer said.
Indeed, the air around the Sharks appeared to be light ahead of Game 5. There was no evident tightness around a group that's faced elimination only once this spring, when the club pounded the Nashville Predators 5-0 in Game 7 of the second round.
Braun said veterans like Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau tend to prefer that easy-going vibe, wary of over-thinking things.
History remains on Pittsburgh's side. Home teams that sweep the first two games of a series have gone on to win the Cup 92 per cent of the time (33 of 36) since the best-of-seven format was introduced in 1939. Two of the three exceptions have come in the last seven years, including in 2009 when Pittsburgh rallied from a 2-0 hole to top Detroit for the Cup in seven games.
Sidney Crosby, the Penguins' captain then and now, hoped the presence of the Cup would propel his teammates forward on Thursday night.
"I think that motivation should inspire guys to be at their best," he said. "But by no means should it be something that anyone's thinking ahead and it doesn't feel like that's the case at all."