SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) _ Mark Smith has spent four seasons doing the Sharks' dirty work and waiting for a chance to shine. His opportunity arrived in the form of a loose puck _ and he swung hard enough to knock San Jose into the next round of the playoffs.
Smith's first NHL playoff goal put the Sharks ahead to stay, and Evgeni Nabokov stopped 21 shots in San Jose's 3-1 series-clinching victory over St. Louis on Thursday night.
The Sharks wrapped up the first-round series in five games thanks to another depth charge _ an injection of speed and energy from their collection of young forwards. San Jose proved its impressive regular season was no mistake with one last decisive victory over the Blues, who scored just nine goals in the series.
Mike Ricci got an insurance goal with 3:38 left, and Brad Stuart also scored as the second-seeded Sharks took the series with their third win 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.
``Hopefully, we'll just sit and watch these other teams battle it out and beat each other up,'' Smith said. ``The (hero) thing is working its way around the room right now. That's what you need in the playoffs: different guys scoring on different nights.''
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.
``They played hard, but it's a long flight back to St. Louis,'' said Ricci, who got his 22nd career playoff goal. ``That was our motivation. We didn't want to give them a chance to take that flight with us.''
Smith has played only rarely as a checker during his four seasons in San Jose, and he wasn't expected to get much ice time 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.
``Our team is so happy that Smitty scored,'' coach Ron Wilson said. ``They were mad they didn't pick Smitty up and carry him around the rink once. ... It just seems apropos, the way our team's played all year, that somebody who no one would expect rises to the occasion today.''
Brian Savage scored for the Blues, who have just two goals in their last four games in San Jose. 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.
``It's going to hurt for a long time,'' Pronger said. ``It won't set in until we see them in the second round, but it's definitely going to be a frustrating summer. It's a little too early to start looking for positives right now. There's a lot of anger, disappointment, frustration and soul-searching amongst our team right now.''
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.
``It felt like we were going home for Game 6,'' Weight said. ``I've been on teams that struggled to get into the playoffs, but this is as disappointed as I've ever been. It doesn't matter unless you're the last team.''