SAN JOSE –- The Sharks figured there would be changes coming to the Blues lineup prior to puck drop for Thursday’s pivotal Game 3 of the Western Conference Final at SAP Center.
And changes, there were. In came Magnus Paajarvi and Dmitrij Jaskin up front, helping to form a new fourth line for St. Louis. Centers Jori Lehtera and Alex Steen switched places. Robert Bortuzzo replaced Joel Edmundson on defense, while Colton Parayko was promoted to the second defense pair with Kevin Shattenkirk.
The result was effectively the same as the previous meeting in St. Louis. The Sharks triumphed, 3-0, after they skated to a 4-0 win on Tuesday that included a late empty-netter.
St. Louis played well and was the better team through the first half of the first period, but couldn’t get on the board. The Sharks adjusted, though, and outshined the Blues for the majority of the final 50 minutes.
Sharks coach Pete DeBoer said that along with the personnel change, the Blues made a structural modification, too, trying to “push us back a little bit.”
It didn’t work for very long.
“I think it took us a little bit to adjust,” DeBoer said. “But as the game wore on, we got more comfortable with how it was going to be played. I thought we got into a real rhythm and really took control.”
No one took control more than the top line of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl, which has been dominant through the first three games. Hertl’s first goal at 15:53 of the first period ended any early momentum the Blues might have been building, and his second marker at 6:09 of the third to make it 3-0 -– after St. Louis made another push coming out of the break –- effectively extinguished any chances it had at a late comeback.
Thornton and Pavelski each finished with a pair of assists. Thornton’s laser-like tape-to-tape pass to Hertl on the Sharks’ third goal was simply the kind of setup that only a few players in the NHL can make, and Hertl finished it off by squeezing his shot through Brian Elliott.
“I saw [Thornton] looking [at] me,” Hertl said. “I was waiting [for a] pass. I just [tried to] go to [the] net and shoot. Was a little bit lucky it was in.”
DeBoer said: “That line played exactly how they played all year for us, which has led the way with how we want to play, the identity of our team. … Those guys brought it again tonight, like they have all year.”
There was some concern about Thornton’s left hand headed into Game 3, after he was slashed by Jay Bouwmeester late in Game 2 and was sporting a bandaged up, black-and-blue thumb at Thursday’s morning skate.
Safe to say, he’s fine. And he’s been the Sharks’ best player in the series, and, frankly, the season.
Thornton had the line of the night at the postgame press conference, too, when asked if he’s surprised he’s playing at such a high level at this supposed late stage of the 36-year-old’s career.
“No, no. I know I'm a great player,” Thornton said, eliciting some laughter. “I love to play. I feel good playing with who I'm playing with, our team.”
Perhaps overlooked in the Sharks’ two wins has been the play of Martin Jones, who became the first Sharks goalie ever to notch back-to-back shutouts in the playoffs. In his first career playoff run as a starter, the 26-year-old now has a 10-5 record with three shutouts, a 1.89 goals-against average and .927 save percentage.
He may be the biggest reason the Sharks are now closer to a Stanley Cup than they ever have been in their 25-year history, too. He simply makes nearly all the saves he’s supposed to make, which is more than you can say for some past Sharks goaltenders in the postseason.
“He's the backbone of our team,” Thornton said. “When he's on, we feel we can't be beat. That's just how it is.”
The group around Jones has been pretty good, too. He has faced 26 or fewer shots in five of his last six games, and saw just 22 of them on Thursday.
“I think if you look at the games, we've done it as a group,” Jones said. “I'm not being asked to steal these games, just make the saves that you expect your goaltender to make in a conference final.”
On Saturday, the Sharks will try and move to within one game of the Stanley Cup Final. No matter what kind of look the Blues throw at them, they feel confident they can handle it, according to Brenden Dillon.
“Going into this there was a lot of talk how deep they were – and they’re a great team, we can’t take away from that – but at the same time, I think we’ve ramped up our game as well, and answered the bell with that.”