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Sharks closer to goal than ever before

San Jose core two wins from first Stanley Cup Final after Game 3 victory against Blues

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

SAN JOSE -- Joe Thornton leaned back in his chair and considered the question: Is this the closest he has ever been to the Stanley Cup Final in his 18-season NHL career?

He went through the past two times he had made the Western Conference Final with the San Jose Sharks. In 2010, they were swept by the Chicago Blackhawks. In 2011, they lost in five games to the Vancouver Canucks.

Then he broke out in a big smile, his white teeth shining amid his bushy, brown-and-gray beard.

"Yeah," Thornton said. "It's the closest, I guess."

The Sharks have been through so much over the years -- high expectations, bitter disappointments, captaincy changes, coaching changes -- and now they are in the conference final again, dominating the St. Louis Blues, two wins from making the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since the franchise began playing in the NHL in 1991-92.

Video: Postgame 5/19: Hertl, Jones, Thornton

How good were the Sharks in their 3-0 win in Game 3 on Thursday? So good that in the third period their fans, who have suffered for so long, who have feared being teased and let down again, did the wave. There was no anxiety, no drama, no doubt.

The Sharks were the better team for much of Game 1 even though they lost 2-1, and they were the better team for the vast majority of Games 2 and 3, outscoring the Blues 7-0. Goaltender Martin Jones has made 48 saves over back-to-back shutouts and hasn't allowed a goal since 9:15 into the second period of Game 1, a span of 150:45.

For the most part, the Sharks have pressured in the offensive zone and worn down the Blues, looking fast while making St. Louis look slow. Their top players have outplayed the Blues' top players. Their depth players have outplayed the Blues' depth players and sometimes even the Blues' top players too.

"That's our game: puck possession and cycling down low and rolling around when we have the puck and trying to create offense that way," San Jose forward Chris Tierney said. "We want to do it against whatever line we're against, and we're up to the task. We're confident right now."

When the Sharks haven't had the puck, they generally have kept the Blues to the perimeter and made life easy on Jones. The Blues couldn't score even when they pulled their goalie for the last 5:31 of Game 3, playing 6-on-5 until defenseman Alex Pietrangelo took an elbowing penalty with 45 seconds remaining. The Blues managed two shots on goal; the Sharks blocked eight shots.

Video: STL@SJS, Gm3: Jones denies Brodziak's scoring chance

"I really do believe our depth is strong," Thornton said. "It's as strong as it's been since I've been here, and then we have this guy (Jones) that's just incredible, and we love playing for him. And it shows night to night. None of us forwards play 25, 26 minutes. They all play 17, 18 minutes a night. The depth is just incredible this year."

San Jose has never seen this before. The Sharks have made the conference final three other times -- they also made it in 2004, losing in six games to the Calgary Flames -- and each time they fell behind in the series 2-0.

This team isn't trying to fight back. With a new coach in Peter DeBoer and a revamped supporting cast around Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, this team is leading a conference final.

This team is feeling it.

"Thinking back to the years that we've been in the conference finals, we fell behind 2-0 both those series," said Couture, part of the core that competed in 2010 and 2011. "It's a battle. You've got to dig yourself out of a hole. I think we're very confident as a team."

Video: STL@SJS, Gm3: Hertl hammers slap shot past Elliott

Couture said the Sharks had been "underappreciated all season." Asked if that helped fuel them, he said: "For sure. Absolutely." The Sharks, long considered underacheivers, have rallied around each other as underdogs.

"I've been around here where the Sharks have been that team that's expected to go out and win the Pacific and roll through teams," Couture said. "We've faced a lot of adversity this season and last summer, and I think it really helped us come together as a group."

The key is keeping that mentality, and the Sharks seem locked in. After Game 3, Pavelski, the captain, called it "a good step" but said there was "a long ways to go."

Like Thornton, Pavelski has never been this close to the Stanley Cup Final. Neither has Marleau or Couture or Burns or Vlasic.

"You try not to [think about it]," Couture said. "I mean, you think of the next game. As soon as that buzzer sounded, it was right on to Game 4."

And the next chance to get closer than ever before.

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