The San Jose Sharks traveled to St. Louis needing three wins to save their season.
They're flying home tonight because they couldn't win one.
A slow start and a pair of goaltending blunders led to a 3-1 loss in Game 5, but it was their inability to play anything close to a 60-minute game that made them easy prey for a Blues team that captured a playoff series for the first time since 2002.
Oh, that crushingly ineffective first. A familiar refrain in this series for San Jose, but this was the Sharks' worst yet, as they were limited to just three shots as the Blues dominated with their puck pursuit and superior defensive positioning.
But early in the second, it looked as if the Sharks had figured it out. They adjusted their forecheck and mucked up the neutral zone, forcing the St. Louis transition game into the deep slush.
And the chances, they started coming. So did the bounces. Of course, they also made their own luck by winning more of the physical battles, including one to the left of Brian Elliott that led to Joe Thornton's opening tally at 19:19 of the second.
Thornton, sporting a Jim James-worthy beard that really deserved another round or two for its own sake, proved throughout the series that he's no longer the soft playoff performer he was in Boston. He was the Sharks most effective forward, especially when paired with Torrey Mitchell and Daniel Winnik. It was Winnik, acquired at the deadline to add some jam up front, who won that battle and found Thornton rotating in the slot.
With the 1-0 lead in their pocket, the Sharks entered the third with some jump, outchancing the Blues by a wide margin only to be repelled by Elliott, so strong again tonight that he passed the midway mark of the second before allowing his first rebound. He was splendid in the final frame, especially when the Sharks began shooting lower and started to get some bodies out front hunting for loose change.
A difference maker, no doubt. Ultimately though, the game turned on the play of Niemi, who opened the door for the fading Blues midway through the third by bobbling a weak wrister from Scott Nichol that was no tougher to handle than a Mookie Wilson grounder. Somehow, the puck popped out of his glove and flopped down, fat in the crease.
No doubt Justin Braun could have helped here. The defender had position on Jamie Langenbrunner, but failed to tie him up before the veteran winger batted the loose puck under the crossbar to tie the game at one.
Time of death was called just 45 seconds later when Niemi was beaten again, this time by a clever deflection off the stick of David Perron that floated over his right shoulder.
Again, a really nice play by Perron for his first of the series, but given how slowly it came in from the point off the original shot by Alex Pietrangelo ... well, it's probably not one that Elliott would have missed.
Andy McDonald closed the scoring shortly after the Blues spent two frantic minutes killing off a delay-of-game penalty when his backhander from center ice found the empty net at 19:21. No surprise that he nailed down the lid. Even though he was invisible for most the game, McDonald was the team's clear MVP outside of Elliott. The goal ended up being his eighth point of the series, the most by a Blue since Doug Weight had 13 in back in 2003.
The Blues now have a few days to rest and take care of the usual bumps and bruises. Pietrangelo in particular might be hurting after taking a Martin Havlat slapper of the foot then being mercilessly crushed by Ryane Clowe while he was trying to balance on one leg. When the second round starts, they might find themselves the favorites to come out of the West.
They seem to have all the pieces. Elliott may have started the playoffs on the bench, but he's proven to be the real thing by posting numbers -- a 1.37 GAA and .949 save percentage -- that somehow bested what he did in his record-setting regular season. Their special teams are clicking, their scoring is balanced and they have a hot, game-breaking hand in McDonald. No reason to think their run stops here.
And the Sharks? In the end, they were good, but not good enough. An above-average team even, but one that never seems to deliver full value on the investment.
In other words, pretty much the same story it's been every spring since Thornton arrived back in 2005.
It's not a full rebuild project, but definitely one that requires a change more significant than flipping spare parts.
You know where this is leading.
Let the Rick Nash rumors begin.