Some of the NHL’s best story lines of the season will collide when the San Jose Sharks take on the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference Finals.
Historic comebacks, a goaltending duel and the return of Joe Pavelski headline what is expected to be a gritty, physical, best-of-seven series. Kevin Labanc said:
“I think with St. Louis, it’s going to be a little more like the Vegas series. More grit, fighting, kind of a harder, heavier game.”
San Jose is seeking its second Stanley Cup Finals appearance in four years. Pavelski said:
“Our team is built where we have many layers, where we can play a physical series or we can play a more skilled series as well. But there is a certain way we want to play the game and we want to dictate the game in certain areas.”
The Sharks have fought through two full seven game series, while St. Louis’ historic playoff run really began four months prior to the postseason. In early January, the Blues were dead last in the NHL. Propelled by the performance of a rookie goaltender, the Blues won 30 of their final 45 games. In the playoffs, they bested Winnipeg in six games and Dallas in seven games.
The Sharks also struggled in the middle of the season. In late December, four straight losses to Vegas, Buffalo, Toronto and Ottawa prompted general manager Doug Wilson to join the team for a closed-door meeting.
“You find out about people during tough times. We were struggling a little bit. Nothing major came out of that meeting, it was same message, different messenger … The credit goes to the players and coaches to say we know we’re better than that, let’s get going.”
After losing to Ottawa on Dec. 1, the Sharks finished the season 34-17-4. However, the Sharks stumbled early in the playoffs, quickly trailing 3-1 in the first round versus Vegas. San Jose prevailed in a memorable seven-game series. In the second round, a back-and-forth battle with Colorado was capped by the emotional return of Joe Pavelski in a Game 7 win.
However, the Sharks still need four wins before they get to the finals. Pavelski said:
“But we understand we’re halfway there and there’s a lot of things going … although you start seeing somewhat of a finish line, there’s another hurdle to climb here and you keep going.
San Jose’s latest hurdle is St. Louis, a team that has not slowed down for the past five months. The last postseason meeting between these teams was the the 2016 Western Conference Finals, when the Sharks won in six games.
Both teams return 11 players from that roster. While the core of each team remains the same, both teams have evolved. Head coach Pete DeBoer said:
“I think they’ve done a real good job integrating some other young guys impact young guys into their lineup. I think you’ve got two totally different teams and you saw two or three years ago.”
Before the 2018-19 season, St. Louis traded for Ryan O’Reilly, who went on to lead the team with 77 points. In his career year, Reilly showcased his skills in all areas of the ice while leading Blues forwards in time on ice. Brenden Dillon said:
“He’s a 200 foot player … He kind of affects the game in so many different assets. He’s a special player that’s probably been one of their best players and the reason why they’ve had success in the playoffs so far.”
San Jose’s big offseason acquisition, defenseman Erik Karlsson, has also been an impact player. Karlsson leads the playoffs with 12 assists as he enters his second conference finals in his 10-year NHL career. In 2017, he was part of the Ottawa Senators team that made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Karlsson said:
“In Ottawa, it was unexpected. We weren’t looking that far ahead. This year, we’ve taken aim at the Cup Final since Game 1 [of the regular season]. That’s our expectation.”
A goalie duel
By far, the most vital part of the Blues turnaround is the stellar play of rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington. In 32 regular season games, Binnington posted a .927 save percentage and 24 wins. The 25-year-old has maintained a .915 save percentage in the playoffs and has been the backbone of the Blues. Dillon said:
“It’s exciting for him, he’s up for the Calder trophy. He’s helped turn their season around, realistically, a guy who came in and has just been rock solid for them back there.”
Meanwhile, Sharks goaltender Martin Jones’ resurgence has been a whole season in the making. Jones stumbled through the regular season, only to follow up with an even worse performance in the first half of the first round. Despite recording a .712 percentage through Games 2, 3 and 4 against Vegas, the Sharks maintained faith in their goaltender.
Late in the regular season, DeBoer and goaltending coach Johan Hedberg had a discussion with Jones. Jones may have been playing too passively, according to DeBoer. However, in the opening games against Vegas, it seemed Jones over corrected and was playing too aggressively. DeBoer said:
“Then he found that happy medium. And I think it coincided with us giving him better protection around them. So one small technical thing, but he’s been great the whole time I’ve been here … he’s been our guy since day one.”
Starting in Game 5 of the Vegas series, the “playoff Jones” that had been promised emerged. In the past 10 games, Jones has recorded a .923 save percentage, including a franchise record-setting 58-save performance. Logan Couture said:
“He’s quiet, but he’s confident … He plays his best hockey in the playoffs and he’s proved that year in, year out. So we knew it was coming and he went out and showed everyone else.”
Just as Binnington’s calmness in net has helped the Blues turn their season around, Jones’ quiet confidence kept the Sharks focused. Dillon said:
“We know what it’s like to have a guy that can be a steady, calming influence. When you have confidence in your goaltender, it kind of spreads throughout your lineup.”
Doing it for Joe
Pavelski’s dramatic story started just 15 minutes into the first round of the 2019 playoffs, when a puck deflected off his face for a goal. Pavelski returned later that game after adding a jaw protector to his helmet. Joe Thornton said:
“He does everything. With him, he just leads by example. He just goes in the dirty areas, he scores his goals in the dirty areas, plays in all situations. But just a likeable guy. Guys want to get behind him and go for him.”
In Game 7 versus Vegas, Pavelski sustained a head injury that led to the Sharks comeback. Pavelski was sidelined for the next six games. Another motivation emerged for San Jose: to keep winning, so that their captain could rejoin them on the ice.
Pavelski appeared on the SAP Center jumbotron to help rally the crowd and the team during Game 5 against Colorado. Timo Meier said:
“He’s a leader all over. All the things he does, he does it for a reason. You can see the energy he brings to our team.”
Then, the team captain returned to dominate Game 7 against Colorado. He scored the opening goal and assisted on the second goal of the game. But Pavelski’s presence brings more than just point scoring to the Sharks.The team captain’s calmness helps guide the Sharks throughout a game.
“I think he has it all. He’s very, very calm. When something needs to be said, he’ll say it. But I think his play backs up everything he does.”
Pavelski’s communication on and off the ice has set him apart as a leader. Dillon said:
“He’s able to talk to the guys, whether you’re a first-year player, fourth-year guy, tenth-year guy. There’s only a few guys around the league that can command that kind of respect, and he’s one of them.”
Of course, there’s the other Joe on the Sharks. In the tail end of his 21-year career in the NHL, 39-year-old Thornton is still looking for his first Stanley Cup. Dillon said:
“It’s Joe Thornton. Pretty much the only thing he hasn’t won is this. I think collectively, throughout the room … to be able to be part of that and potentially help him get that crossed off his resume would be pretty cool.”
But it’s not just Thornton who is looking to hoist the cup for the first time. None of the Sharks players have ever won it, and neither has the franchise. Pavelski said:
“We know where he is in his career, where a lot of us are. It’s not just win one for Joe, it’s win one for all of us. Win one for San Jose.”