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Sharks rally past Stars to clinch playoff berth

by Eric Gilmore /

SAN JOSE -- In their final home game of the regular-season, the San Jose Sharks gave a sellout crowd reason to celebrate Tuesday at HP Pavilion, clinching their ninth straight trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 3-2 comeback win against the Dallas Stars.

Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture scored back-to-back goals in a 30-second span late in the third as the Sharks overcame a 2-1 deficit. After a post-game celebration with their fans ended, the Sharks quickly turned their attention to their next goal -- securing home-ice advantage in the first round.

San Jose and Los Angeles, which lost 2-1 to the Minnesota Wild, are deadlocked with 57 points, although the Kings own the tie-breaker for fourth place with more regulation/overtime wins. The St. Louis Blues are right behind in sixth place with 56 points.

The Sharks finish the season with road games on Wednesday at Phoenix and Saturday at Los Angeles.

"There's a sense of relief, but it can't be a sense of relaxation," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "When we came in we immediately looked at what happened tonight around the League, and there's still a chance for home ice. It would be a nice thing to have."

For their second straight game, the Sharks needed just one point to clinch a playoff spot. After losing 4-3 to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday, the Sharks got two points on Tuesday. But until late in the third period, it looked as if they were going to get swept by Dallas in the season series and hit the road for their final two games without a playoff berth locked up.

Then, Pavelski and Couture went to work and finally got some pucks past Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen, who stopped 34 of 37 shots.

With 5:37 left to play, the Sharks pulled even at 2-2 when Pavelski redirected a long blast from Brad Stuart past Lehtonen. Thirty second later, Couture got the puck from Patrick Marleau in the left circle and ripped it past Lehtonen, giving the Sharks a 3-2 lead with 5:07 left to play.

Couture couldn't help but smile at the thought of clinching a playoff berth in a season that included so many highs and lows.

"It was a crazy year. It’s obviously not over yet," Couture said. "Just the 48-game schedule, so many games back to back and inconsistency of the seven-game winning streak, the big losing streak and then the stretch we’ve gone on now. It’s been a weird year. Our main goal from day one was to get into the playoffs. We’ve done that now so I guess that’s all that matters going forward."

Raffi Torres also scored for the Sharks, and goaltender Antti Niemi stopped 24 of 26 shots.

Antoine Roussel, Loui Eriksson scored for the Stars, whose playoff hopes took a huge hit with their first loss to San Jose after three straight wins in the series.

The Stars remained in 10th place with 48 points, three behind eighth-place Columbus and two behind the Detroit Red Wings. They have two games left, but both are at home against the teams they're trying to catch: Columbus on Thursday and Detroit on Saturday.

"Desperation. Do or die," Stars center Jamie Benn said. "Just like tonight. We needed these points and didn't get them. There are still four out there that we can get."

Stars defenseman Stephane Robidas called the loss "very disappointing."

"We battled hard all night," Robidas said. "Since the (trade) deadline, everyone had written us off and here we are. I think everyone has shown a lot of character. We needed a point tonight, but couldn't get it. It's very disappointing.

"I haven't done the math, I don't know if we have any possibility. We owe it to our fans to try."

The Sharks had gone a combined 2-for-12 on the power play in three previous games against Dallas this season, but Torres gave them a 1-0 lead at 12:53 of the first period with a power-play goal.

Skating hard down the slot, Torres took a pass from Scott Gomez and flipped the puck over Lehtonen's glove and into the net for his seventh goal of the season and second as a Shark.

The Stars answered just 99 seconds later on Roussel's eighth goal of the season. Niemi stopped Cody Eakin's shot from the right circle, but couldn't control the rebound. Roussel pounced on the loose puck and knocked it past Niemi before he could get back into position.

The Stars turned up the heat late in the period, when the Sharks started taking penalties.

Defenseman Scott Hannan went to the box at 17:48 for elbowing Eakin. Then 46 seconds later, Stuart joined Hannan in the penalty box for interfering with Erik Cole.

The Stars had a 5-on-3 advantage for 1:15, but didn't score and nearly gave up a shorthanded goal to Sharks defenseman Justin Braun on a breakaway, but Lehtonen smothered his shot.

By the end of the period, the Sharks had just 28 seconds left to kill on Stuart's penalty, but defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic earned two minutes for slashing. So the Stars opened the third period with a 5-on-3 advantage, and Eriksson needed just 17 seconds to score a power-play goal on a rebound of a Ray Whitney shot, putting Dallas ahead 2-1.

The Sharks had a great chance to pull even midway through the period when a loose puck came to Marleau in front of Lehtonen. Marleau's shot trickled past Lehtonen, but the puck was cleared out of the crease before it crossed the goal line. Then late in the period, Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle ripped a shot from the slot, but Lehtonen deflected the puck with his left pad.

The Sharks outshot Dallas 10-4 in the second period, but couldn't convert.

Early in the third, the Sharks kept the shots coming couldn't get one past Lehtonen. In one sequence, Pavelski and Boyle ripped back-to-back shots, both of them turned away. With under seven minutes left, Torres hammered a rebound from close range, but Lehtonen covered the puck.

"He made some huge saves and kept us in the game," Robidas said. "They came at us pretty hard all night."

Little did Lehtonen know what was to come in the closing minutes.

"It’s one of those things where you’re at home, the crowd is building and building and you’re just waiting for it to blow," Pavelski said. "It finally does and it was an awesome atmosphere out there. It was a good feeling. It was rewarding for a lot of guys in the room."

That includes Sharks captain Joe Thornton.

"It feels good," Thornton said. "It was a battle all night, we had so many chances all night. We needed the two points bad, and yeah, we're in. We still got two games to go, but it's a good feeling now."

Stars rookie forward Alex Chiasson, who scored a combined three goals in the previous two games against San Jose, missed his fourth straight game with a shoulder injury.

Sharks defenseman Jason Demers, who had a walking boot on his left foot Tuesday morning, missed his second straight game.

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