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Jones rewards Sharks' faith after early playoff struggles

Goalie has been lights out past 10 games to help San Jose reach Western Conference Final

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

SAN JOSE -- The San Jose Sharks could have traded for a goalie while Martin Jones was amid the worst season of his NHL career, if only for insurance. They didn't.

They could have started Aaron Dell after pulling Jones twice in three games against the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference First Round, the season on the line. They didn't.

And now here they are in the conference final against the St. Louis Blues, with Game 1 at SAP Center on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS), thanks in no small part to the way Jones has rewarded their faith.

 

[RELATED: Complete Sharks vs. Blues series coverage]

 

Jones is 7-3 with a 2.13 goals-against average and .928 save percentage in the past 10 games. He has won four games facing elimination, including two Game 7s.

"There was never one discussion about trading for a goalie," coach Peter DeBoer said. "There was never one discussion about starting somebody else. He's been our guy since Day One."

Video: Jones tightens up, leads Sharks to second Game 7 win

Jones went to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final with the Sharks, who signed him to a six-year contract extension July 1, 2017. His career save percentage in the playoffs was .931 …

Until he played Vegas in the second round in 2017-18. He went 2-4 with a 3.13 goals-against average, an .895 save percentage and one shutout in that series.

He had the worst goals-against average (2.94) and save percentage (.896) of his NHL career in the 2018-19 regular season. Dell's numbers were even worse: 3.17 and .886.

But the Sharks felt the issues were collective.

"I don't think there was any doubt in any of our minds that [Jones] was capable of doing it," general manager Doug Wilson said. "We believed in him, and he's our guy. The combination of him and [Dell], we're very comfortable with them."

Jones was not a storyline in Game 1 against Vegas in the first round this season. He stopped 24 of 26 shots. The Sharks won 5-2.

But he allowed three goals on seven shots and was pulled after 6:39 in Game 2, a 5-3 loss. He allowed six goals on 40 shots in Game 3, a 6-3 loss. And he allowed two goals on seven shots and was pulled after the first period in Game 4, a 5-0 loss.

In each of those games, he allowed a goal in the first 1:11. Over those three games, his save percentage was .796.

"It seemed like he just wasn't as comfortable as he normally was at first, and then a switch flipped, and he was just back to his old ways, how he was on that run in '16," defenseman Justin Braun said. 

"He's just so calm and poised there. I think that's his biggest thing.

Video: SJS@COL, Gm6: Jones denies Landeskog in tight

"Even if he has a few bad games in a row, he doesn't lose his composure. He's never yelling at the [defensemen]. He just worries about what he needs to do, and I think he did a good job of looking at what wasn't working and figuring that out."

What wasn't working? What did he figure out?

"I thought he was maybe playing a little passively (late in the regular season)," DeBoer said. "And then I think he got a little overaggressive maybe early in the Vegas series, and then he found that happy medium. And I think it coincided with us giving him better protection around him. One small technical thing, but he's been great the whole time I've been here."

Asked if he had been more conservative, playing deeper in net, giving him more time to react, Jones said: "I think a little bit. Again, I think it's just more of a mindset. Like I said, you want to go, and you want to make big saves. But you can't go chasing the puck around. You've got to kind of wait for the saves to come to you a little bit."

Jones had a .946 save percentage over the last three games against Vegas, as the Sharks rallied from down 3-1 to win a series for the first time in their history. He set the team record with 58 saves in Game 6, a 2-1 double-overtime win. His biggest came with the score tied 1-1 in the third, when he slid across and got a pad on a shot by forward Reilly Smith.

Jones went 4-3 with a 2.29 goals-against average and .916 save percentage against the Colorado Avalanche in the second round.

"I've been impressed," Blues forward David Perron said. "Everyone was on him early in the Vegas series, and then he kind of … I don't want to say put his team on his back, but that game, Game 6, was an unbelievable performance by him. Obviously I follow the playoffs pretty closely, and I thought he was excellent last round again.

"So I don't know. He's one of their best players so far in the playoffs, and we're going to have to find some solutions."

Yes, Jones is a problem. For the other team.

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