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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Joe Pavelski was positioned just a few feet away from the spot where he was bleeding from his head on the ice just over two weeks ago when he did what he has done so often in his brilliant career. Pavelski got his stick on a shot that he redirected into the net to give the San Jose Sharks a Game 7 lead they wouldn't relinquish.
The Sharks got their captain back and are moving on to the Western Conference final.
Pavelski made a triumphant return from a gruesome head injury by posting a goal and an assist in the first period that helped send the Sharks to a 3-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche in Game 7 on Wednesday night.
"I got to watch these guys play for six games. They gave a lot of motivation for me," Pavelski said. "They were there for me. I wanted to come out and give them a good game as well. There wasn't going to be one guy who won this game and there wasn't. It was a big group effort out there."
But no one was more important than Pavelski, who inspired the crowd and carried his team to another Game 7 victory after the epic comeback in the first round against Vegas following his injury. He scored the first goal and assisted on Tomas Hertl's goal as the Sharks advanced to their fourth conference final this decade.
"He played unbelievable for a guy that missed playoff action for two weeks," teammate Logan Couture said. "To have the injuries that he has, coming back, and set up a goal, scored a goal. I wish I could tell you what he's gone through from seeing it firsthand. You wouldn't believe that he's playing right now, let's just say that. He played unbelievable."
Joonas Donskoi ended a 39-game goal drought, Martin Jones made 14 of his 27 saves in the third period and the Sharks capitalized on a favorable replay review that negated a potential game-tying goal by Colorado in the second period.
San Jose will now play St. Louis in a conference final matchup between two successful teams seeking their first championship. Game 1 is Saturday night in San Jose.
Mikko Rantanen and Tyson Jost scored for the Avalanche, who were trying to make their first conference final since 2002. Philipp Grubauer made 24 saves.
"We set high expectations for ourselves and we came up a little bit short," coach Jared Bednar said. "Our guys worked every day to try to fulfill our expectations of our group. It was a real good series, but they were the better team for too big a portion of tonight's game and they won and they deserved to win."
The excitement started early at the Shark Tank with the fans cheering loudly when Pavelski stepped out for warmups for his first game back since his bloody concussion in Game 7 of the first round against Vegas.
There was a deafening roar when Pavelski was announced as a starter and the entire first period became a lovefest for San Jose's captain in what could be his final home game with the Sharks before he can be a free agent this summer.
Pavelski took less than six minutes to provide more than just inspiration. He deflected Brent Burns' point shot past Grubauer for the opening goal of the game and celebrated with an exaggerated fist pump.
"You know, you're almost speechless," coach Peter DeBoer said. "Many people in the building, a lot of them saw the injury. I don't think you saw the recovery and what he went through and how questionable it was whether he would even be able to be out there tonight. ... He's a special player, a special guy."
Pavelski then set up Hertl with a pass from behind the net to make it 2-0 midway through the period and drew a penalty that nearly led to a power-play goal later in the period as the Avalanche struggled early.
Colorado lost star Nathan MacKinnon early in the first when his shoulder crashed into the boards, but his return after getting an injection late in the period helped spark the Avalanche. He created a couple of scoring chances and Colorado then converted with MacKinnon on the ice in the closing seconds of the period when Rantanen deflected a point shot from Samuel Girard with 6.8 seconds remaining in the first.
The Avalanche appeared to tie the game midway through the second when MacKinnon set up Colin Wilson, but DeBoer challenged the play for offside. The play was overturned because captain Gabriel Landeskog was still in the zone as he went off the ice on a line change.
"It's a clumsy mistake," Landeskog said. "If I could've done something different on that play, I would have jumped the boards a lot quicker."
The Sharks then restored the two-goal lead later in the period when Donskoi skated around the net and beat Grubauer high to the short side for his first goal since Jan. 10.
Colorado pushed hard in the third, getting a goal in the first minute from Jost, but the Sharks managed to hold on from there for the win.
NOTES: The Sharks won multiple Game 7s in the same postseason for the first time in franchise history. The last team to advance to the conference finals with two Game 7 wins was St. Louis in 2016. The Blues were eliminated by the Sharks. ... Colorado F Matt Calvert remained sidelined with an upper-body injury. The Avalanche again dressed seven defensemen and 11 forwards.
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