The San Jose Sharks have had more than their fair share of playoff disappointments over the years. And the St. Louis Blues are one of the few teams that can truly appreciate what they’ve endured. That’s why the biggest storyline heading into these Western Conference Final was the simple fact that one of these two organizations would finally break through.
San Jose is now just one win away.
The Sharks have never been this close before, but they’ve looked like a team on a mission ever since the puck dropped in their opening round series against their rivals from Los Angeles last month. And Monday night was no different.
On the heels of a Game 4 win by the Blues — and trailing 3-2 late in the second period on the road, no less — Joe Pavelski struck for the 11th time in these playoffs. And then he struck again, for the 12th time.
In other words, the guy who always seems to find the back of the net in key moments managed to score both the game-tying and game-winning goals. In arguably the biggest contest of franchise history. So far, at least.
If Peter DeBoer’s group goes on to win the whole thing — and that’s a big “if”, of course — it would be tough to argue against Pavelski as the Conn Smythe winner. Which is saying something, considering Logan Couture has 21 points in these playoffs, Martin Jones notched three shutouts in a four-game span last week, Joe Thornton is tied for the league lead with 14 assists and Brent Burns makes a major impact from the blue line every single night.
That’s the type of postseason Pavelski has had though. In fact, he’s been doing this most of his career — to the point where Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos are the only players who have compiled more goals over the last five seasons. He’s represented Team USA on the international stage many times, and he already had seven playoff game-winners on his resume coming into this season. But this is clearly his breakout performance with the entire hockey world watching.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, St. Louis is now in a very difficult spot. The Blues faced elimination in each of the first two rounds — but those were both Game 7 scenarios, where the other team had to deal with the relentless pressure of trying to keep their season alive as well. This will be the first time in these playoffs when they’ll hit the ice as the only club fighting for survival.
The experience of winning those Game 7 tilts with the Blackhawks and Stars could certainly prove useful. After all, Ken Hitchcock’s squad did manage to withstand a feverish rally from the defending Cup champs, then ousted the NHL’s top-scoring team in the next round. Those aren’t minor accomplishments.
It’s not like this was a lopsided decision in Game 5 either. Despite how the 6-3 score might look at first glance, two of San Jose’s tallies came with the net empty in the final minute of play. And the Blues rang a pair of shots off the post when the score was 4-3 in the third.
That’s pretty much the very definition of playoff hockey. In a game of inches, St. Louis is now facing elimination. And you never want to go into a scenario where your season is on the line with any sort of indecision between the pipes.
Hitchcock has difficult choice to make though. Brian Elliott was the club’s most valuable player against Chicago in the opening round, and was a major reason why the Blues were able to advance past Dallas as well. It wasn’t necessarily his fault that they dropped the second and third games of this series, but the switch to Jake Allen seemed to spark the other guys in Game 4.
On Monday, however, Allen stopped just 21 of 25 shots. That’s an .840 save percentage and — while simple numbers don’t always tell the whole story — it’s enough to at least re-open the debate over who should be starting with the season on the line in less than 48 hours. St. Louis obviously doesn’t want to be bouncing back and forth between netminders at this critical juncture, but it would be tough to have the season end with a healthy Elliott sitting on the bench.
Of course, the situation would improve greatly for the Blues if Vladimir Tarasenko could get back on track up front. After notching 40 goals and 34 assists during the regular season, then piling up another seven goals and six assists in his club’s first 14 playoffs games, the gifted 24-year old has exactly zero points over five games in this series.
Meanwhile, Jones stumbled a little between the pipes for San Jose early on in this one — allowing three goals on the first 13 shots he faced. But he’s one of the few goalies left in these playoffs that doesn’t have to look over his shoulder at the bench every time something goes wrong, and he bounced back by stopping the last eight shots he saw to pick up the win. There’s no question who will be in net for the Sharks on Wednesday. And he’ll have an opportunity to secure the organization’s first ever trip to the Stanley Cup.