Never in their history have the Sharks led in a conference finals series. But in a season which players and coaches have repeatedly stressed a new team identity, the on-ice results finally reflect the locker room sound bites.
In Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals on Thursday night, the Sharks grabbed a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series with a 3-0 shutout of the Blues, marching further into uncharted territory.
Up 2-0 in the third period, the Sharks extended their lead to three goals on Hertl’s second goal of the night. After a strong shift by the first line, Hertl took a feed off the boards from Joe Thornton and beat Brian Elliot from point blank.
The goal was set up by a classic Thornton pass, who slid it off the back boards at a perfect angle, right to the stick of Hertl.
The winger described the play:
“[Thornton’s] an amazing passer. He’s just looking every time, spreading around, and I’m just waiting. I saw him look at me. I just waited for the pass, and right away it was on my tape.”
That prompted Blues’ head coach Ken Hitchcock to pull Elliot for backup Jake Allen, a move that made little impact as the Sharks swam away with a second consecutive dominant shutout win in the series.
The first line of Hertl, Thornton and Joe Pavelski have given the Blues fits all series and keyed the Sharks to victory in Game 3. They come together like perfect pieces of a puzzle, according to Thornton:
“[Hertl and I] know each other’s tendencies in our sleep. For me, I like to past. He likes to shoot. And then you throw [Pavelski] in there and it’s a pretty good line. All three of us read so well off each other. We’ve just got to keep continuing that.”
It was a sentiment echoed by head coach Peter DeBoer:
“Their line played exactly how they played all year for us. When your best players are your best forecheckers, your best back checkers, the first guys to block shots, the first guys to stop and defend in your own end, that leads to the rest of the group. Those guys brought it again tonight like they’ve had all year.”
It took the Sharks nearly nine minutes to record a shot on goal to start the game. But after Brent Burns’ shot found the net midway through the period, the Sharks found their legs. And with less than five minutes remaining, they struck first. Thornton picked off a Blues’ pass in the neutral zone, and on the rush Pavelski found Hertl, who unleashed a hard slapshot from outside the left circle past Elliot.
“It took us a little bit to adjust. The first 5-10 minutes of the game, we were on our heels a little bit. As the game wore on, we got more comfortable with how it was going to be played. We got into a good rhythm and really took control.”
The Sharks ended the first period with a 1-0 lead and on a power play, which carried on into the second, but they could not convert.
Still, San Jose pressed and controlled play in the second, keeping the puck in the offensive zone. With momentum building, the Sharks doubled their lead when Logan Couture found Joonas Donskoi trailing the play on an odd-man rush, and the Finnish rookie wristed one into the net.
A big part of the Sharks’ playoff success has been the stellar play of Jones, who has been calm, cool and collected in his first postseason as a starter, posting his second consecutive shutout. But Jones insisted it was nothing out of the ordinary:
“If you look at the games, we’ve done it as a group. I’m not being asked to steal these games. Just make the saves you’re expected to make in a conference final.”
Though the Sharks were outshot 15-13 through two periods and 22-16 in the game, they were dominant in puck possession and pressure, killing off the Blues’ lone power play with ease.
It was a microcosm of how the series has shifted heavily to San Jose’s favor since Game 1, with the Sharks earning the opportunity to gain firm command in Game 4 on Saturday at 4:15 p.m.
“We know it’s going to be a challenge in Game 4. They’re going to be better and we need to be better again.”