SAN JOSE, Calif. — By the end of Sunday’s game, which felt a lot like the end of their season, the San Jose Sharks’ bench was depleted. So were their spirits.
The St. Louis Blues, who joined the National Hockey League in 1967 but have never won a championship, clubbed the Sharks 5-0 to take a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference Final. The best road team of the playoffs is one win away from extending their extraordinary journey all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.
It’s a trophy the Sharks have never won, either, despite San Jose compiling over the last 15 seasons far more wins than any other NHL team.
But with a chance to play for a Cup this spring, the Sharks were dominated on home ice by the Blues, who are 7-2 on the road in the playoffs and can make the franchise’s first final since 1970 by winning Game 6 Tuesday in St. Louis.
Fifty years of frustration may be coming to an end for the Blues, as the Sharks’ disappointment over the last two decades seems about to deepen.
“It’s probably tough for me to put into words,” forward Jaden Schwartz, a career Blue, said after his second hat trick of the playoffs helped his team inch within a game of the Stanley Cup Final. “Obviously, it’s something that everyone has worked for and dreamed about. We all know how important and how hard that last win is going to be (against San Jose) but it would be a dream come true.”
St. Louis winger Vladimir Tarasenko said: “I think every player dreams to play in the Stanley Cup Final, but we’re not there yet.”
They look far closer to getting there than the score in this series indicates.
The Sharks weren’t close to the Blues on Sunday.
After San Jose winger Evander Kane hit the post seconds into Game 5, St. Louis went ahead 1-0 on an errant pass by Sharks defenceman Erik Karlsson before the Blues absolutely dominated the middle period.
Shots finished 40-21 for St. Louis, who outshot San Jose 36-10 over the final 40 minutes.
Karlsson, who has been trying to play on one leg after missing 27 games late in the season due to a groin-related injury, did not play in the third period. Key centre Tomas Hertl also did not appear for the final period after absorbing a check to the head earlier in the game from Blue Ivan Barbashev, who was not penalized for his late, high hit.
Veteran Shark Joe Pavelski, who missed most of the second round due to a concussion, was injured on his first shift of the third period when hit hard along the boards by Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo.
San Jose also finished the game without Micheal Haley and Kane, who were assessed 10-minute misconducts for late altercations.
Literally and figuratively, the Sharks looked like a beaten team.
“We’re still alive,” San Jose centre Logan Couture said. “We’ve been in this spot before going to Vegas down 3-2 (in the first round) in a very, very difficult building. St. Louis is similar.”
The Sharks will try to rally themselves with the knowledge they are 4-0 when facing elimination in these playoffs. But only one of the season-extending wins was on the road, and it required goalie Martin Jones to make 58 saves when his team was outshot 59-29 by the Vegas Golden Knights.
A performance like that now looks beyond Jones, who has been badly outperformed the last two games by St. Louis rookie Jordan Binnington and handed the puck to Schwartz on his first goal Sunday.
But individually, nothing looks bleaker for San Jose than Karlsson’s deteriorating health. He barely played after labouring back to the defensive zone early in the second period when defence partner Brent Burns made a desperate lunge at Tarasenko and tripped the Blue as he was heading in on a breakaway.
Tarasenko buried his penalty shot to make it 3-0. Oskar Sundqvist’s opening goal came after Karlsson passed the puck behind Brendan Dillon and then screened Jones on the Blue’s one-timer.
Oddly, Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said he relied on medical news from his staff and Karlsson when choosing his lineup for Sunday. DeBoer used Haley, pointless in 10 playoff games after the forward’s two-goal regular season, rather than dress an extra defenceman.
Karlsson played only one shift in the final 10 minutes of Game 4, which St. Louis won 2-1 on Friday.
The Blues might have won this series in five games had officials not missed Timo Meier’s hand pass that set up Karlsson’s overtime winner in Game 3.
“For sure, we’ve been here before,” DeBoer said of facing elimination. “We had to go in and win on the road in Vegas in order to get to a Game 7. You’re never comfortable when your backs are against the wall like that, but we have been here before and found a way. I’m confident we can do that again.”
The Blues have been the best team in the Western Conference since dramatically turning around their season at the mid-point. Their trajectory has been angling towards this moment for a long time.
“We’re just trying to live in the present and stay in the moment and keep working and see what happens,” Binnington said. “It’s been a good job so far. Just keep cool and let it happen.”
“I’ve felt something special, honestly, since we turned it around in the middle of the season,” defenceman Joel Edmundson said. “Our group is so tight in here. We like to play for each other, stick up for each other. It’s been really fun and it’s pretty special.”
The Blues were mightily challenged to manage their emotions after the blown call cost them Game 3. Their focus for Tuesday’s game will also be severely tested. If they dare look up, they’ll see a Stanley Cup Final awaiting them.