By Josh Dubow
AP Sports Writer
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Two years after their most devastating playoff loss, the San Jose Sharks held their most meaningful celebration.
The franchise notorious for falling short each postseason will finally get the chance to play for the Stanley Cup.
Captain Joe Pavelski scored an early goal, Joel Ward added two more and the Sharks advanced to their first Stanley Cup final in franchise history by beating the St. Louis Blues 5-2 on Wednesday night in Game 6 of the Western Conference final.
“You try to learn from experiences,” Pavelski said. “You like to not have to. But that’s the course we’ve taken. Now that we’re here, again, this was a great step for us. It was another step. … But we realize there’s more out there. That’s what we’re going to turn our attention to.”
Few outside San Jose thought this day would come so soon after the team blew the 3-0 series lead in a soul-crushing playoff defeat to rival Los Angeles in 2014 and then missed the playoffs entirely last season.
But on the same ice surface where they watched the Kings celebrate on the way to their second championship, the Sharks posted the biggest win in their 25-year history.
“That was as low as you can get as a professional athlete, individually and team wise,” center Logan Couture said. “Then last year obviously tough time missing the playoffs and going through some stuff as a team. I really think everything we’ve gone through has made us a lot stronger as a group.”
The players who endured those disappointments played a big role in getting past them. Joe Thornton set up Pavelski for the first goal, Patrick Marleau had two assists in the third and Couture had a goal and two assists to give him a league-best 24 points this postseason.
But unlike past years, San Jose’s stars got plenty of help. Martin Jones made 24 saves, Ward posted his second straight two-goal game and rookie Joonas Donskoi also scored as the Sharks got lots of contributions from some of the newcomers general manager Doug Wilson brought in over the past year.
“It’s huge just for the people who have been here so long,” Ward said. “I think this was an unbelievable accomplishment for sure.”
Despite making the playoffs 16 times in 18 seasons and winning the second-most games in the NHL since the start of the 2003-04 season, the Sharks have lacked postseason success.
They won just three games in three previous trips to the conference final, were knocked out twice in four seasons by a No. 8 seed and then had the collapse against Los Angeles in 2014.
The impact of that loss lasted for a while as San Jose missed the playoffs entirely last season. But led by first-year coach Peter DeBoer, a familiar core and added depth, the Sharks recovered this year and are now only four wins from a championship.
“It’s a pretty cool feeling,” Thornton said. “Obviously it’s our first time. It was pretty neat to get this done at home. The fans here have waited so long, 25 years. We’ve waited 18 years or so. So it’s a great feeling.”
This was the first time in San Jose’s history that the team played with a trip to the Stanley Cup final on the line. The atmosphere in the Shark Tank reflected the high stakes with the fans at a frenzy during pregame introductions. The “Let’s Go Sharks!” chants started soon after the puck dropped, and those chants turned to “We Want The Cup! We Want The Cup!” in the third period after San Jose took a 4-0 lead.
Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final will be Monday night. The Sharks will either host Tampa Bay or visit Pittsburgh, depending on which team wins Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final Thursday night.
“It’s a great moment for those guys who have put in a lot of work, but we still have another series to go,” Couture said. “We still have four more wins to try to get. It’s another step. This is the third one now. We’re ready for that next challenge.”
With the loss, the Blues’ postseason woes continue as the franchise still seeks its first championship and first trip to the Cup final since 1970. Coach Ken Hitchcock’s second goalie change of the series did not work as Brian Elliott allowed four goals on 26 shots in his return to the net.
Vladimir Tarasenko, a 40-goal scorer in the regular season, got his first points of the series when he scored twice in the third period, but it was too late for the Blues.
“It stings right now,” captain David Backes said. “Six more wins and we’re having parades on Market Street. Right now … not enough.”