San Jose Sharks netminder Martin Jones posted his second-consecutive shutout and Tomas Hertl scored two goals to put the St. Louis Blues behind 2-1 in the Western Conference final.
Being that Thursday night was only Game 3 between the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks, it was hardly a must-win for either team. Yet, somehow, it felt that way for the Blues.
Through two games and a series split in St. Louis, it felt as though the Sharks had dominated play. And the reason it felt that way is because, frankly, it had been that way. When the score has been close in the Western Conference final — when games have been tied or the Sharks needed a goal — it has appeared as though San Jose has been able to control the run of play at will.
So, even though Game 3 wasn’t necessarily a must-win for St. Louis, it seemed essential that the Blues come out of the gate and play like a team that was in dire need of the series lead Thursday night. And the Blues did. They really, truly did. Problem is the Blues’ controlling of the play lasted only mere minutes into the first frame, and after that, it was the Sharks’ game to lose. And though it took San Jose nearly 16 minutes to open the scoring — which came on a pinpoint-accurate shot by Tomas Hertl, no less — Game 3 never really felt all that close as the Sharks skated to a 3-0 victory.
That Hertl, a member of the Sharks’ top line, was the one to open the scoring was incredibly fitting, too. Through the three opening games of this series, San Jose’s trio of Hertl, Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton has been nothing short of dominant. With the puck on their sticks, they’ve looked almost Globetrotter-esque to the Blues’ Washington Generals. That may sound unfair, but it’s not as much a knock against St. Louis defensively as it is in praise of the way the line has played. Maybe the most impressive of the three has been the veteran Thornton, who looked spectacular in Game 3.
Thornton was seemingly everywhere at once through the first two periods of Thursday’s contest. Over the first and second frame, when the puck was on his stick, he looked like the most dangerous Shark on the ice. It was he who made the backhanded flip pass to start the rush that led to San Jose’s first goal, and though he wasn’t as dominant in the third frame, he made a magical pass to Hertl that set up the 22-year-old’s second tally of the game.
After Hertl’s second goal, Blues netminder Brian Elliott was pulled from the contest in favor of Jake Allen. However, it was almost impossible to blame Elliott for his performance. Save Hertl’s second goal, the St. Louis netminder was under siege for almost the entirety of the first 40 minutes and he couldn’t really be put at fault for either of the Sharks’ first two goals. If anything, it was a move by Blues coach Ken Hitchcock to send a message to the rest of his team, which had sleepily played its way through two periods and dug itself a hole that was impossible to crawl out of.
With the loss, St. Louis now seems to have entered real, must-win territory, and the most important thing will be finding a way to finally solve Martin Jones. The Sharks’ 26-year-old netminder — a first-year full-time starter — had to make only one or two huge saves during Game 3, and he turned aside all 22 shots he faced Thursday night to post his second-consecutive shutout. That makes 58-straight shots that Jones has parryed during a 130-plus-minute shutout streak. Before the series, it was Elliott, not Jones, who was considered the potentially series-changing goaltender. Instead, it’s Jones who is making the difference, even if the Sharks’ ability to thwart the Blues’ attack has made life easier for the San Jose netminder.
It’s far too early to call this series a done deal, but Game 4 will undoubtedly need to be the best game Hitchcock’s Blues have played this post-season. Some believed Game 3 would be the game the St. Louis broke out, but instead the Blues fell flat. That can’t be the case Saturday night, though, because with the way the Sharks have played through three games, a 3-1 series deficit looks as though it may be insurmountable for St. Louis.