San Jose, Calif. — For a San Jose team whose playoff struggles have often come down to running into a streaky goaltender at the wrong time, it must be nice to have the goalie making all the stops.
Martin Jones made 22 saves in his second straight shutout and Tomas Hertl scored twice to give the Sharks a series lead for the first time in four trips to the Western Conference final with a 3-0 victory over the St. Louis Blues in Game 3 on Thursday night.
“He’s the backbone of our team,” forward Joe Thornton said of Jones. “When he’s on, we feel like we can’t be beat. … He’s just such a big guy, such a calm goalie. We love playing in front of this guy. We honestly believe that he’s the best goaltender in the league.”
Joonas Donskoi also scored to give the Sharks a 2-1 series advantage and move them as close as they have ever been to reaching their first Stanley Cup final. San Jose had won just three games in its first three trips to the conference final, part of a long history of playoff disappointment that is showing signs of coming to an end this season.
San Jose has controlled the play for much of this series, limiting St. Louis’ chances and taking advantage of miscues by the Blues to generate enough offense. St. Louis has gone 150:45 without scoring since Jori Lehtera’s second-period goal in Game 1 led to a 2-1 victory.
Game 4 is Saturday in San Jose, where the Sharks have won six straight playoff games.
“It’s a long ways to go. It really is,” captain Joe Pavelski said. “We’ll worry about this next game and we’ll take it from there. Got to have that same kind of energy.”
Brian Elliott allowed three goals on 14 shots before being pulled midway through the third. Coach Ken Hitchcock said he could give backup Jake Allen the start in Game 4, but St. Louis’ problems are much bigger than their goalie.
The Blues now find themselves trailing a series for just the second time this postseason. Overcoming this deficit may be tougher than coming back last round after losing the opener to Dallas.
“It’s tough to win when you don’t score,” defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “Can’t leave our goalies out to dry like that. It’s on us now to find a way to create more offense and to find a way to score more goals.”
While the Stars were leaky on defense and rotated between two mostly ineffective goalies, the Sharks have done a stellar job defending in front of Jones, who has been sharp in his first postseason as a starter.
After allowing the soft goal to Lehtera that led to the Game 1 loss, Jones has been perfect the past two games. He has stopped 58 straight shots and has posted the first back-to-back playoff shutouts in Sharks history.
“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.”
That kind of goaltending and another dominant performance from Thornton’s line was more than enough for San Jose. That line scored twice, with the first coming off a St. Louis turnover late in the first.
Colton Parayko’s breakout pass to Lehtera was broken up in the neutral zone by Brent Burns. Thornton quickly sent the loose puck ahead to Pavelski, who found Hertl for a big slap shot that beat Elliott high to the glove side to make it 1-0 late in the period.
Hertl scored again early in the third off a perfect pass from Thornton, ending Elliott’s night.
The Blues looked faster early after making several changes to their lines and lineup, holding the Sharks without a shot on goal for more than eight minutes. But St. Louis seemed to lose some steam after Hertl’s first goal.
Matters only got worse in the second period as St. Louis’ lack of scoring led to a risky pass that turned into a San Jose goal. Donskoi broke up a pass from Robby Fabbri to start an odd-man rush. Logan Couture skated into the offensive zone and fed the trailing Donskoi for the wrist shot from the slot that made it 2-0.
“It’s 1-0 hockey game. We got to feel comfortable playing it,” Hitchcock said. “We’re in great shape. Then we make a mistake. We cross-ice pass it to a covered guy, it’s a 2-on-1 that ends up being a 3-on-1. It’s in our net. Now we’re coming from behind.”