Sharks swim into Game 4 holding unfamiliar lead

To call the Sharks cautiously optimistic after scoring seven straight unanswered goals across two shutout victories, and capturing their first-ever series lead in the Western Conference Finals, is an overstatement — a decade of heartbreak is tough to erase.

10-year Sharks veteran Joe Thornton recounted previous conference finals trips:

“I think we got swept against Chicago (in 2010), and what was Vancouver (in 2011)? Was it four-two or five-one? So yeah this is the closest (I’ve been to the Stanley Cup Finals) I guess.”

The Sharks won three games in their three previous trips to the Western Conference Finals combined, a total they can match with another home victory in Game 4 Saturday afternoon. All three of their failed berths were preceded by Pacific Division titles, an accomplishment the Sharks sniffed this year before eventually winding up third behind Los Angeles and Anaheim.

Logan Couture said:

“I’ve been around here when the Sharks have been that team that’s expected to go out and win the Pacific and roll through teams. We’ve faced a lot of adversity this season and last summer, and I think it really helped us come together as a group.”

After dropping a close Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, San Jose laid the blueprint for victories over St. Louis with a 4-0 thrashing in Game 2. Game 3’s 3-0 follow-up proved it replicable. The Sharks jumped out to first-period leads in both of their wins, provoking the Blues to press forward aggressively while risking breakaway opportunities and committing undisciplined penalties.

Head Coach Peter DeBoer said after Game 3:

“We had a lot of odd-man attacks, a lot of two-on-ones, a lot of looks early in the game because they were pressing up.”

It doesn’t hurt that goalie Martin Jones has fortified the offensive surge with a .972 save percentage over the past three games and padlocked the San Jose net completely during his last two outings.

Martin Jones said:

“I’m not being asked to steal these games. It’s just make the saves that you expect your goaltender to make in a conference final.”

Tomas Hertl leads the team in his first conference final with three goals, all of which have been assisted by his linemates in Thornton and team captain Joe Pavelski.

Pavelski praised Hertl after his two-goal performance in Game 3:

“(Hertl) has been jumping all post-season. He’s been good. He’s had some good looks, he comes down and gets that little extra second. It’s good to see that go in. It gives us that jump-start.”

The referees lightened their impact after an active Game 2, reducing the penalty count to two in Game 3 after dishing out ten the game before. This kept San Jose’s power-play unit — first among post-season teams with 15 scores — off the ice for all but one opportunity. Even without the man-up chances, the Sharks were able to coax the Blues into sloppy play after establishing a first-period lead.

St. Louis head coach Ken Hitchcock said after Game 3:

“I think after it went one-nothing there was a period in time that we probably tried to force things offensively, got a little bit frustrated there. When you’re not scoring you have two choices. Either you be diligent and stay the program or you get to forcing offense.”

Hitchcock acknowledged the Sharks special teams advantage by shuffling veteran Steve Ott out of the lineup after a bone-headed penalty in Game 2; not a monumental move, but a testament to his respect for the Sharks power-play unit nonetheless. He also swapped starting goalie Brian Elliot for backup Jake Allen at the end of Game 3, and later admitted to considering the switch heading into Game 4.

A win or loss in Saturday afternoon’s game will be the difference between a tight 2-2 series and a 3-1 runaway.

Pavelski said after Game 3:

“We’re playing with confidence. From game to game we’ve had some good starts, every line has had a little contribution. It’s got to continue. It’s good stuff, this win here. Now we have to rest a little bit, recover and get ready to go again.