ST. LOUIS -- Through the years, as the San Jose Sharks kept falling short in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Joe Pavelski kept developing chemistry with teammate Joe Thornton.
Through the years, as the Sharks kept being called underachievers, Pavelski kept working at his craft.
The Sharks are one win from their first Stanley Cup Final, closer than ever before in their 25-year history, after defeating the St. Louis Blues 6-3 in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final on Monday and taking a 3-2 lead in the best-of-7 series.
Pavelski scored two key goals to put them on the cusp, giving him a League-leading 12 goals in the playoffs and 21 points, tied for first with teammate Logan Couture.
His goals were born amid all that disappointment. The first was a product of his longtime connection with Thornton. The second was a product of hours of practice that have made Pavelski, in the words of Couture, "the best in the world" at a certain hockey skill.
This was a great hockey game. The Sharks and Blues went back and forth with speed, skill and animosity, desperate to seize the advantage ahead of Game 6 at SAP Center in San Jose on Wednesday (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).
The Blues held a 3-2 lead near the end of the second period, and it seemed all they had to do was hold it. They were 6-0 when leading after two in the playoffs; the Sharks were 1-3 when trailing after two.
But then the Sharks went on the power play. Couture won a battle along the end boards and sent the puck to Thornton, one of the best passers in the League, if not the best. Thornton had his head up at the right side of the net and a clear path to the front of the crease.
"I was going to look to shoot," Thornton said.
But he has spent years playing with Pavelski, and Pavelski has spent years playing with him. Pavelski's approach is simple.
"Try to get open," Pavelski said.
Pavelski skated into the slot, stick cocked.
"I decided to pass," Thornton said with a sly smile, "and it worked out OK."
Thornton sent the puck to Pavelski. It rolled on the ice, chewed up at the end of the period, but no matter. Pavelski one-timed a knuckleball that nicked the glove of Blues goaltender Jake Allen and fluttered into the net at 18:33.
"I get to go on the power play with those guys, so I'm pretty lucky," said Couture, whose assist was his 14th of the playoffs, tied with Thornton for first in the League. "I give Jumbo the puck, and I get some points. Just watching those two and seeing what they do, it's pretty special."
The goal sucked the life out of Scottrade Center and the St. Louis bench. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock called it the "killer." During the second intermission, Hitchcock told his players it would be a one-goal game. In essence, he told them next goal wins.
Meanwhile, Sharks coach Peter DeBoer told his players all they needed was one goal because of goaltender Martin Jones.
"Pete keeps us calm," Thornton said. "He knows what we need in this locker room. He's the leader. He said, 'Jonesy's going to shut the door. You guys get one, and we'll be all right.' And we did, and we're one win away."
They did, and they are, because Pavelski did what he has done in practice day after day, month after month, year after year. He often will stand in front of the net at practice, and a defenseman, often Brent Burns, will fire a row of pucks at him. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. He'll tip them all into the net.
On this play, the Blues had iced the puck. So even though they had the last line change, they couldn't put out the Paul Stastny line that had done a good job against the Pavelski line most of the night. So DeBoer put out the Pavelski line for the offensive zone faceoff.
Pavelski won the draw against Blues center Patrik Berglund, went to the net and deflected a shot by Burns past Allen 16 seconds into the third period.
This one was spectacular even for Pavelski. He reached out to his right, stretching his arms, and got his blade on a puck that was flying through the air about thigh-high. It dipped down and into the net. Allen had no chance.
That was the difference. The Sharks didn't break it open until they scored two-empty net goals in the final minute.
"We're used to seeing that so much," Thornton said. "He just works so hard in practice at those little things, and with Burnsie, those two are always working together. So it's just beautiful to watch."
DeBoer called it "incredible."
"You think back to some of the best scorers ever," DeBoer said. "His ability to get his stick on pucks in the offensive zone, in front of the net, different angles, is as good as anybody I've ever seen. But it's a great lesson. He works at it. He works at it every day. …
"You have to work at those things to become really good. He's got some God-given ability too. His biggest asset is he works at it."
The Sharks have been at this for so long. They made the conference final in 2004 but lost to the Calgary Flames in six games. They made the conference final in 2010 but lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in four. They made the conference final in 2011 but lost to the Vancouver Canucks in five. They fell short many other times.
But they have won 11 playoff games for the first time in team history, thanks largely to a pass, a shot, a deflection and all the work that went into them.
by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist