The sequence came with about a dozen minutes to go in the third period. The San Jose Sharks were leading the St. Louis Blues, 3-0. The Blues leading scoring, Vladimir Tarasenko, flashed open in the high slot area. But as he got off his shot, three Sharks collapsed on him. His shot was deflected, floating harmlessly into the netting above the glass. Tarasenko’s scoreless playoff series continued, once again a scoring chance denied by a smothering San Jose defense. Moments later, the Sharks Patrick Marleau pushed the puck up ice. He passed it over to Logan Couture who made his second perfect feed of the night, this time to Joonas Donskoi. Donskoi lasered the puck past Blues goalie Brian Elliott. The scoreboard read 4-0. Once again, the Sharks speed and crisp puck movement left a Blues goalie exposed.
It was the series in a nutshell. The tough and talented Blues team unable to capitalize, the resilient Sharks team finding a window of opportunity and cashing in.
Alas, as if to remind everyone that Yogi Berra was right, “it ain’t over til it’s over,” the Blues made a late push. Tarasenko scored twice, his first two goals of the series. With three and-a-half minutes left, the score was 4-2. With two minutes left, a brilliant cross-ice feed from Paul Stastny gave Tarasenko a point-blank chance for a hat trick. At which point, Sharks goalie Martin Jones made one of the best and biggest saves of his career. Whatever life the Blues had left was snuffed out in that moment. An empty net goal finished the scoring, giving the Sharks a 5-2 win in the biggest game in team history.
The Sharks have played 18 postseason games this year, winning a dozen, which means they advance to the Stanley Cup Final. In every sense, the Sharks have earned this trip. In the three series clinching games, the Sharks have outscored their opponents 16-5, just two of those goals were empty netters. They beat quality veteran goalies. A Conn Smythe winner in Jonathan Quick, a former Vezina finalist in Pekka Rinne and this season’s leader in save percentage in Brian Elliott. In the three series clinching games, the Sharks have spent a grand total of four minutes on the penalty kill.
Defense, Discipline and Determination
The Sharks modus operandi has been similar in each series. Smothering defense, opportunistic offense, depth contributions, discipline, determination and a power play which forces other teams to be just a bit more wary than they’d probably like. The Sharks are a team that pushes the pace for all 60 minutes. Roll four lines and three defense pairs. It may not have been any better illustrated than in the series clincher, where the Sharks came at St. Louis in waves. Pretty much every Sharks player was effective.
How balanced was the effort?
The Sharks top line put in the first goal. A stretch pass from Tomas Hertl led to a breakaway for Joe Thornton. Elliott stopped Thornton, but a determined Pavelski quickly retrieved the puck before Elliott could figure out where it was and jammed it past Elliott on a second attempt.
The Sharks third line added the next goal, with Joel Ward tipping in a point shot from Brent Burns, Chris Tierney also getting an assist on the play.
The Shark second line stepped into the starring role for the next two scores. It was pretty passing, Marleau to Couture to the goal scorer. Goal three went to Ward, goal four, as mentioned earlier, to Donskoi.
And while the Sharks fourth line was kept off the scoreboard, they played a dozen physical, energetic and effective minutes.
The Sharks are winning in the postseason in different ways. In their opening round series against the Kings, each game fit the team’s modus operandi, but a different part of the team led the way in each win. It is one reason this team will be dangerous in the Stanley Cup Final; if opponents effectively deny one element of the Sharks game, another rises up.
If one moment captured the player’s mindset for me, it was during the television timeout with under five minutes to go and the Sharks holding a 4-1 lead. I scanned the Sharks bench. No smiles on the bench. Just players, to a person, who were intensely dialed into the game, awaiting their next shift. Only Martin Jones had a more casual reaction. As he skated back towards his crease, a moment before he put his mask back on, he smiled. This is a Sharks team that understands no task is done until it is really done. They understand their task is not done. It is an attitude that will serve them well as they move into the Stanley Cup Final.
As the postgame ceremony started to unfold, Sharks owner Hasso Plattner was seen clapping on the bench with his wristband (the same one given out to fans) flashing with each clap. Handed a championship cap moments before the Clarence Campbell Bowl was awarded, Plattner looked momentarily puzzled, before realizing what is was and where it belonged. He put it on. As is traditional, the Sharks players avoided touching the Bowl.
No surprise, the Shark Tank was as loud as it has ever been for the biggest game in Sharks history. Not only was the crowd loud, but there were very few quiet stretches. After the Sharks failed on a four-minute power play in the second period, the Blues began their best push of the game, the most anxious moments of the game for the fans. Jori Lehtera had a great scoring chance off a cross-ice pass, but Jones denied him with a pad save.
The arena announcer made an error few noticed, attributing a St. Louis goal to Tarasenko, with assists from Lehtera and Paajarvi. Magnus Paajarvi, who wears 56, did not play. The assist belonged to Colton Parayko, who wears 55.