The San Jose Sharks had never been closer than two wins away from the Stanley Cup final. That was until following Game 5 of the Western Conference final.
With the chance to take a 3-2 series lead and push the St. Louis Blues to the brink of elimination, the Sharks saw their opportunity and took it. And as it has been for much of the post-season, it was the Sharks’ deadly power play that took over and captain Joe Pavelski who made his presence felt when the Sharks needed someone to step up.
Less than three minutes into the second frame, with St. Louis leading 2-1, Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk was whistled for roughing Tommy Wingels. Letting the Sharks power play go to work was the Blues’ first mistake, and San Jose got the game-tying goal from Joel Ward on their first man advantage opportunity of the night. And though the Blues would again pull ahead on a power play of their own, their inability to stay out of the penalty box would cost them in a big way.
Shattenkirk again headed to the box, this time late in the second period for hooking, and the Sharks top power play unit made the opportunity count. After working the puck around the Blues’ zone for what felt like an eternity, the Sharks got the puck below the goal line to Joe Thornton who spotted Pavelski sneaking in from the blueline. ‘Little Joe’ connected with a one-timer:
Pavelski���s power play goal was his 11th of the post-season, tying him for the playoff lead, but he wasn’t done there. The Sharks captain struck again, scoring his 12th goal of the post-season before the Blues could even get settled into the third period.
Just six seconds into the final frame, Pavelski won a faceoff immediately following a St. Louis icing which would start the play that led to the game-winner. After a shot off the faceoff was stopped by Blues goaltender Jake Allen, the Sharks’ dogged forecheck regained possession and Brent Burns mustered a shot on goal. As Burns let the shot go, it was Pavelski who got to the front of the net to tip home what would stand as the game-winning goal. Before the contest was through, Ward and Chris Tierney would add empty-net goals to push the Sharks’ lead, and the final score, to 6-3.
And though the score looks lopsided, it’s worth noting they were twice in a one-goal hole. But even though the Sharks had to twice come back from deficits, the game never really felt in doubt from the second period onward. The run of play was dominated by the Sharks and their ability to possess the puck put the Blues on their heels, just as it has all series. There’s a speed to the Sharks that hasn’t been seen in San Jose before, and for what feels like the first time, the Sharks have been constructed in such a way that it feels they have the perfect mix of veteran presence and youthful skill.
Were it not for the Blues essentially stealing Game 1, however, this series could have been over Monday night. Because barring Game 4, which was the one game thus far St. Louis has looked and played like the better team, this has appeared to be San Jose’s series to lose. That doesn’t mean the series is anywhere near over, though. Even if the Sharks have looked like the better team, Game 4 showed the Blues can hang around when everything is clicking.
One of the most important things for the Blues in Game 6 will be having their stars play like their stars with the season on the line. Outside of young Robby Fabbri, who has been fantastic all post-season, the Blues haven’t gotten enough from their top players. They’re still waiting for big games from Alexander Steen, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko, the latter of which has yet to register a point in the series.
If the Sharks can continue to shut down the Blues go-to scorers, everything is going to fall on the shoulders of the St. Louis goaltender, whoever that may be come Wednesday. Allen wasn’t awful in Game 5, but Brian Elliott has been able to steal games this post-season. Against a Sharks team playing as well as they are, a game-stealing performance from their netminder could be exactly what the Blues need to stay alive. Don’t think coach Ken Hitchcock isn’t thinking about a switch, either. He has already said he’s waiting to decide who will get the call in the first elimination game of the conference final.
Regardless of the outcome, though, Game 6 stands to be a potentially pivotal night for both franchises. A flameout in the conference final and the Blues could be looking at a big restructuring in the off-season, while a win could save more than a few jobs in St. Louis. And while a win for the Sharks would make franchise history and could help San Jose shake the “choker” tag that has followed the team for most of the past decade, a Game 6 loss could mean that label sticks for just a bit longer.