A year removed from disappointing mediocrity, the San Jose Sharks marched past the ghosts of their 25-year history Wednesday night, capping their post-season magnum opus with a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
San Jose clinched their shot at hockey’s grand prize with authority, sealing a Western Conference finals win with a 5-2 triumph over the St. Louis Blues.
San Jose looks vastly different that they did last May, when the team had just missed its first playoff berth in a decade. The hiring of Peter DeBoer to clean up the departed Todd McLellan’s mess coaxed a brilliant season out of veteran Joe Thornton, and a serviceable one from Patrick Marleau.
It was captain Pavelski who pieced together a broken breakaway for the Sharks first score of the evening and his 12th of the playoffs, placing him atop the post-season leaderboard for goals scored. After Joe Thornton flipped his one-on-one chance off the boards behind Blues goalie Brian Elliott, Pavelski recovered the puck and jammed a wrap-around backhand into the net.
Pavelski sold out on the defensive end later in the period, diving in front of a shot and snapping his stick as the clock wound down.
Ward credited Pavelski’s consistency:
“Our big guys (like Pavelski) have been huge. They’ve scored some big goals for us, I think almost in every game to be honest with you. That makes it pretty good when your go-to guys come up big every night.”
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock foresaw the early score, saying he expected the Sharks to “hit us with a knockout punch early” in an interview before the game. He just couldn’t stop that punch. Or the next three.
Hitchcock praised the Sharks’ efforts after his team’s defeat:
“We knew we were in for a big push. We watched them play other games when it was close-out time. They were committed a little bit better than us. When you get a buy-in like they have right now, it’s gold.
Joel Ward added to the lead by redirecting an outside rocket from slap-shot specialist Brent Burns to give the Sharks a 2-0 pad five minutes into the second period. Ward’s finest moment was yet to come, but for the time being the Sharks were finally starting to see a glimpse of Stanley Cup silver.
Ward spoke about joining the Sharks veteran core for a run at the Stanley Cup:
“I’m very happy for them, and for myself to get a chance to play with those guys. They’re Hall-of-Famers, they’re Olympians, they’re gold medalists, all the above. I just to try and help them achieve the big goal. (Coming in) the core group of guy here on paper was unbelievable.”
The minute and a half after Ward’s first goal bordered on abusive, with the Sharks hammering the net and pads of a listless Blues team. St. Louis waved the white flag by way of a four-minute, double-minor penalty from Scottie Upshall, and then wrenched the nail from the coffin by killing the power-play chance.
Ward cemented the Sharks lead in the third period with another goal, and with it, his spot in San Jose lore. As Logan Couture threaded a tandem of Blues skaters, Ward swept onto the opposite side of the crease. Couture put the puck right on his tape, and the rest is history.
Couture commented on Ward’s contribution:
“(Ward) is steady calm, just with his demeanor on the bench and how he plays hard. He goes to the net, that’s a prototypical playoff guy and a guy that is a leader.”
Never mind that the last half of the third period saw St. Louis slip a couple of goals past steadfast Martin Jones, who was there when it mattered. That stretch also allowed Joonas Donskoi the hero moment the Czech rookie so deserved. Donskoi whipped a Logan Couture feed past Elliot for his fourth score of the playoffs, and Couture added an empty-netter to seal the score at 5-2.
Joe Thornton said:
“It really clicked in December, that’s when we saw the depth of this team. It’s Chris Tierney scoring goals, it’s Joel Ward scoring goals, everybody makes big contributions. That’s why we’re here right now. Because everybody makes big contributions.”
The Sharks await their Stanley Cup Finals opponent on the other side of a pivotal Game 7 between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning. A Tampa Bay win would slide Game 1 and home ice advantage to San Jose starting Monday. Otherwise, it’s off to Pittsburgh.
Thornton closed his post-game press conference with purpose:
“This is not the end goal. I’ll tell you that right now.”