SAN JOSE -- Tomas Hertl had the first goal of Game 6 on his stick with about nine minutes left in the first period.
With the Vegas Golden Knights in the midst of a line change, San Jose defenseman Brent Burns back-handed a blueline-to-blueline to a wide open Hertl. Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury challenged, but Hertl’s shot beat Fleury over his right shoulder.
The puck then pinged off the crossbar, and Hertl fed the rebound to Logan Couture in the slot. But Hertl’s pass rolled helplessly off of Couture’s stick, and Vegas dodged a first-period bullet.
The 0-0 scoreline held into the second period, where the Golden Knights scored twice en route to a 3-0 Game 6 win on Sunday, their fourth of the series. That left the Sharks to ruminate on early, missed opportunities on the night their season ended.
“We just didn’t find a way to put any pucks in the net,” captain Joe Pavelski said. “We had some opportunities early; a couple of power plays and some really good looks. Whether the puck spun off, or [we] got a skate on it, or whatever kind of happened … I think our opportunities early were there to take that lead and get control of that game.”
San Jose out-chanced Vegas 17-9 in all situations in the first period, according to Natural Stat Trick. That included a 9-5 edge at even strength, but the Sharks were held scoreless in the opening 20 minutes for the fifth time in six games.
They finished the series with a first-period goal-differential of minus-four across all situations, despite out-attempting (137-121), outshooting (71-60), and out-chancing the Golden Knights (62-57) in the six first periods.
Fleury stopped 70 of 71 first-period shots in total, good for a .986 first-period save percentage.
“I thought we had some good starts,” Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer said. “Had some quality chances early in a lot of those games. [I thought Fleury] was great in a lot of those games, allowed them to get their feet under them, and we were chasing five of the six games.”
That was the case again in Game 6. As statistician Darin Stephens noted with an assist from Natural Stat Trick, Vegas controlled play the rest of the way after absorbing San Jose’s early offense.
The Golden Knights especially stymied the Sharks in the third period. As was the case for most of the matchups between the two clubs this season, Vegas was the better team over the final 20 minutes, and held San Jose to just seven, five-on-five shots as its season wound down.
Trailing by two, the Sharks only shot three times in the first 13-and-a-half minutes of the third period.
“I think if we had to do it over again, we wouldn’t have [had our defensemen join the rush] so early in the third,” Couture said. “We should have gotten back to what led to success this series, and that was chipping [the puck] in, going to get it, forcing them to play in the [defensive] zone and taking pucks to the net, and for some reason, we didn’t want to do that.”
With better finishing at the start, and better starts to their finishes, San Jose may very well still be playing. Instead, the story of the season continues unabated, and Vegas is deservedly headed to the Western Conference finals.
“For periods of the series, I thought we were the better team,” Couture said. “We played the game we know we’re capable of. We showed we could beat them.
“We just didn’t do it long enough.”