The road to winning the Stanley Cup is only halfway over, yet both combatants in the Western Conference final are truly battle tested.
When the San Jose Sharks play host to the St. Louis Blues on Saturday night to kick off the third round of the NHL playoffs — a rematch of the 2016 Western Conference final won by the Sharks — both teams have already overcome so much.
The Sharks first beat the Vegas Golden Knights in the opening round — their Game 7 comeback that featured four third-period power-play goals, a blown final-minute lead and then an overtime win will undoubtedly go down in hockey lore — before surviving a gut-wrenching series with the Colorado Avalanche in the second round.
The Blues have impressively overcome their challenges, too. After upsetting the favored Winnipeg Jets in a six-game set to kick off the second season, in which they won all three road games, St. Louis knocked off the Dallas Stars in double-overtime in Game 7 of the second round. Throw in the oft-recorded tale of how the Blues were last in the league on Jan. 3, and there’s no doubt adversity doesn’t impact this club.
“I’m really proud of this group more and more every single day,” Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo told NHL.com. “A lot of people say we have a close room, and we do because that’s a resilient effort from where we were in December to get to where we are now. Sometimes you’ve just got to look back and be proud of the effort. It’s been a long road, but we just keep on pushing. ... We’re finding a way.”
The Sharks can tell a similar tale.
“It’s good to have some adversity, and I think that we definitely have had that,” San Jose defenseman Erik Karlsson said. “In both Game 7s, I think we played with no fear. You know, we haven’t thought about the end result. We’ve just stayed in the moment and tried to take care of each shift, and that’s what it takes. If you do that, I think with the group that we have and the talent that we have in here, the end result is going to go our way.”
For what it’s worth, San Jose won two of three regular-season meetings, one of those in overtime. Considering the Sharks finished two points ahead of the Blues in the standings, it stands to reason fans should expect another long series featuring a pair of clubs with plenty of experience.
Both teams feature all kinds of key players who were involved in the last playoff meeting three years ago: Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Joe Thornton, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic for the Sharks; Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko and Alex Pietrangelo for the Blues.
That series has no bearing on today, but makes for an interesting sidebar. San Jose’s only trip to the Stanley Cup Final was in 2016. The Blues last reached the final round in 1970 — which is remembered for Bobby Orr’s overtime winning goal.
“I’ve been lucky enough to play in a few Western Conference finals in my career and you realize you can’t take them for granted because you never know when the next one is going to come,” Couture said. “That’s basically the message that’s been passed on to me and we’re trying to pass on to these other guys in this room. You have to really cherish these moments and take advantage of them, because they don’t come around often.”
Pavelski returned from an apparent head injury for Wednesday night’s Game 7 against Colorado and he scored the game’s first goal.
—Field Level Media