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Nabokov stops 21 as San Jose clinches

4/16/2004

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."

Game notes
Goc, a German who spent the season with the Sharks' AHL
affiliate in Cleveland, wore No. 57. ... Ryan Johnson missed his
second straight game for the Blues with an undisclosed injury.