Sharks eliminate Blues

Friday, April 16, 2004

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The San Jose Sharks' incredible regular season was no mistake. They're deep, fast and a little bit lucky -- and they're moving ahead in the playoffs.

Injury replacement Mark Smith scored his first NHL playoff goal, and Evgeni Nabokov stopped 21 shots in the Sharks' 3-1 series-clinching victory over St. Louis on Thursday night.

Mike Ricci got an insurance goal with 3:38 left, and Brad Stuart also scored as the second-seeded Sharks took the series 4-1, winning three games at the sold-out Shark Tank. They're the first team to advance to the conference semifinals, which probably won't begin for a week.

A year after finishing 14th in the Western Conference, the Sharks capped their franchise-record 104-point regular season with their fifth trip to the second round. They've never reached the conference finals -- but they've never been on such a late-season roll, either.

Brian Savage scored for the Blues, who have just two goals in their last four games in San Jose, including Nabokov's overtime shutout victory in Game 1. St. Louis controlled play for most of Game 5, but the Blues missed a handful of open-net chances that left Chris Pronger slamming his stick on the ice in frustration.

Nabokov was outstanding in the final minutes, making several sprawling saves shortly before San Jose's defense thwarted a six-on-four St. Louis power play in the final 78 seconds.

Nabokov gave up seven goals in the two games in St. Louis, but he was back in top form at home. He got plenty of defensive help -- and the Sharks got the winning goal from an unlikely source.

Smith has played only rarely as a checker during his four seasons in San Jose, and he wasn't expected to play much in the postseason. But Alyn McCauley's shoulder injury in Game 1 has given him four games of action.

Smith played on a line with rookie Marcel Goc, a former first-round draft pick making his NHL debut because of an injury to Scott Thornton -- and the youngsters generated a goal in the second period. Goc jarred the puck away from defenseman Christian Backman deep in the Blues' zone, and Smith made a wild swipe at the puck that somehow found the net.

Smith joyously body-slammed the end boards in celebration of both forwards' first career playoff points.

The Blues needed a lengthy late-season surge under replacement coach Mike Kitchen just to reach the playoffs for the 25th consecutive season. They didn't have much left for the playoffs, where San Jose rolled four effective lines at the Blues' weary defensemen.

The Sharks had yet another fast start when Stuart scored just 110 seconds in, capitalizing on a long rebound. San Jose nearly got another goal several minutes later, but Niko Dimitrakos' shot hit the post behind Chris Osgood as the goal light came on.

The Sharks' fans were still booing the missed opportunity when Savage elbowed past two Sharks and scored on a pass from Doug Weight, who scored the Blues' only previous goal in San Jose during Game 2.

Notes: Goc, a German who spent the season with the Sharks' AHL affiliate in Cleveland, wore No. 57. San Jose expects Goc to make its roster next season. ... Ryan Johnson missed his second straight game for the Blues with an undisclosed injury. ... St. Louis also lost in the first round last season, blowing a 3-1 series lead against Vancouver. ... San Jose got a lengthy two-man advantage in the second period when Mike Danton and Murray Baron were sent to the box 16 seconds apart, but the Sharks never came close to scoring.

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