Back again, by popular demand.
The San Jose Sharks, a sentimental favorite among unattached NHL playoff watchers, are off to the Western Conference Final after defeating the Colorado Avalanche in Game 7 on Wednesday night at SAP Center.
Led by Joe Thornton, Brent Burns, and Joe Pavelski, it's the franchise's fifth semifinal appearance since 2004, and second in the past four years. Game 1 against the St. Louis Blues goes Saturday.
Before we turn the page and zero in on what projects to be a supremely entertaining third round, let's put a bow on the Avs-Sharks series by handing out some winner and loser honors from San Jose's 3-2 win.
Pavelski, who's known as "Little Joe" in Sharks land due to Thornton's claim to the "Jumbo Joe" nickname, embraced the big stage on Wednesday.
Returning to the lineup 16 days after suffering a concussion, San Jose's captain wasted no time warming up to Game 7 hockey, buzzing right from puck drop. The master tipper deflected a Burns point shot six minutes into the first period to open the scoring and then earned a primary assist on Tomas Hertl's 2-0 tally.
All told, Pavelski looked fantastic in nearly 20 minutes of action. Sure, he didn't take a single faceoff and was between the boards for the Avs' two goals but, all things considered, it was a legacy-building night for the 34-year-old.
Questions also surrounded Martin Jones, and not because of his performance against Colorado, which had been stellar through six games, but because of his body of work. Jones' reputation as an inconsistent No. 1 netminder precedes him at this point in his career. It's probably unfair, but it is what it is.
With a 27-save effort, though, Jones did his part to flip the script. He stopped superstar Nathan MacKinnon on a breakaway toward the end of the first, weathered an early third-period flurry of Avs chances, and stoned Alex Kerfoot with 50 seconds remaining to preserve the win.
Between the two standout showings, San Jose's pregame question marks morphed into exclamation points.
It wouldn't be a 2019 NHL playoff game without a dash of controversy, right?
Sharks head coach Pete DeBoer issued a coach's challenge in the second period, claiming the Avs were offside ahead of Colin Wilson's game-tying marker. The sequence in question was reviewed by the NHL's Situation Room, and the call on the ice was ultimately overturned.
The tape revealed Gabriel Landeskog, who had been trying to make a line change, was on the wrong side of San Jose's blue line prior to Colorado's zone entry. Here's part of the explanation released by the league:
Landeskog most definitely deserves blame here, and he accepted the brunt of it in his postgame media availability. For some reason, he was trying to open the bench door at a leisurely pace. The Avs captain is a sharp guy who had a lapse in judgment, simply not recognizing the urgency of the situation.
Now, it's important to acknowledge that Landeskog isn't the only culprit. Based on replay footage, Colorado's bench clearly wasn't in a panic as Landeskog approached, nor did it erupt when he started to physically open the door. Teammates, coaches, and staff watched like innocent bystanders when they could have, you know, opened the door for him.
The more times you watch the clip of Landeskog leaving the ice, the more you come around to the fact that, on the surface, it was an innocuous sequence of events and perhaps no one's really to blame.
In any case, kudos to DeBoer and his staff for flagging the miscall. They felt strongly enough about the blunder to initiate a challenge and were rewarded.
The final stat line reads one goal and five assists in 10 games. But the Cale Makar Experience was so, so much more.
When the Avs signed the 20-year-old defenseman following last month's NCAA national championship game, there were expectations. Makar, considered then to be the best prospect outside of the NHL, would acclimate well during his introduction to the best league on the planet. The UMass stud would contribute on some level. And then, he doubled down, leaving a jaws-dropped impression on the hockey world.
There's now no doubt that Makar - a smart, tantalizing package who seemingly doesn't have an off switch - will challenge for the Calder Trophy next season. Hell, he should be the favorite. He's quick, skilled, adventurous, calm, confident, elusive. There's nothing about Makar's 10-game sample that suggests the elite talent's anything less than a star in the making.
With head coach Jared Bednar pairing Makar with Samuel Girard for most of his debut and trusting the duo in key situations during Game 7, the Avs likely agree. (By the way, is Colorado the NHL's next powerhouse? Think about it: a core of MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Landeskog, Tyson Barrie, Philipp Grubauer, Makar, Girard, and two of the top 16 picks in 2019. Decent start.)
Even in defeat, the Makar hype machine is locked and loaded.
The Sharks winning Game 7 means MacKinnon's game-breaking services are no longer needed. What a shame. He is must-see TV, 1000 times over.
Colorado hitting the golf course also means its power play can be shelved for a few months. Not a shame. Despite finishing the regular season with the seventh-best PP rate (22 percent), the Avs were mediocre with the man advantage this postseason, converting on seven of 46 opportunities (14.6 percent).
Game 7 was particularly painful. They managed a total of five shot attempts on three opportunities, and none of the attempts were dangerous. Here's HockeyViz.com's visualization of the Avalanche's power-play shot generation, with blue circles denoting a shot on goal and grey circles representing a missed shot:
To be fair, both teams' power play dried up in the series, with Colorado scoring just twice on 22 tries and San Jose scoring twice on 19. The units essentially canceled each other out, putting pressure on the Avs to win the five-on-five battle against a much deeper club. Spoiler alert: It didn't turn out well.
Despite his best efforts, MacKinnon couldn't do it all in the deciding game. He left in the first period to tend to a sprained shoulder, returned, and was his usual world-class self. The team outshot the Sharks 15-2 in the third. But it wasn't enough, and the Avs and their power play flamed out unceremoniously.
The subplot of the Sharks moving on is that it brings Thornton one step closer to the Stanley Cup Final. Over in the Eastern Conference side of the bracket? His old club, the Boston Bruins. How perfectly aligned, hockey gods.
For a postseason that's had its fair share of twists and turns, a Thornton-Bruins final would be the cherry on top. And boy would it drive TV ratings. The casual fan - tuned out for portions of the second round due to a lack of big-market, star-heavy squads - would come running back, chops licked.
Thornton, a legend in both Boston and San Jose who's now centering the Sharks' productive third line, could very well be skating in his final playoffs. He's battled various injuries over the past few years, turns 40 in July, and doesn't have a contract lined up.
An all-time playmaker who is beloved by his teammates, opponents, and fans across the league, Thornton has no shortage of support. Seemingly everyone has a soft spot for the grizzled vet, and nobody would blame him if he rode off into the sunset after this season, even if the Sharks don't hoist the Cup. Speaking of which, Carolina and St. Louis might also have something to say about the Win One For Jumbo narrative.
Come on, though - the potential for Joe Thornton to lift the Cup against the Bruins, and maybe in Boston, of all places? Incredible theater.
John Matisz is theScore's national hockey writer.