SAN JOSE – When Sharks center Logan Couture limped to the bench and hobbled his way up the tunnel early in the second period on Saturday night, the 1-1 deadlock in Game 3 suddenly seemed far less important.
After all, if the Sharks were to lose their single biggest offensive weapon, who is quickly transitioning into the team’s leader both on and off the ice, their playoff run would be virtually dead regardless of the result.
Instead, Couture returned. And with his overtime winner, the Sharks are suddenly very much alive in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the rival Los Angeles Kings.
[RECAP: Sharks 2, Kings 1 (OT)]
Couture, who appeared to injure his left leg after a hit into the boards from Jeff Carter, deposited a pure goal-scorer’s goal high over Jonathan Quick during a San Jose power play at 1:29 in overtime. San Jose will have a chance to tie the series at two games apiece on Tuesday night at HP Pavilion.
“In my opinion, he’s probably the leader of this team,” Brad Stuart said. “Throughout the season he’s kind of taken that role, I think, especially on the ice. To have him come back was huge.”
Joe Thornton said: “He’s a gamer, that’s all I can say. He’s a competitor. Thank goodness he ended the game tonight for us.”
[RELATED: Couture says he's fine for Game 4]
Much like the Kings did in Game 2, the Sharks benefited from a pair of late penalties to Robyn Regehr (hooking, 19:18 of the third) and Trevor Lewis (goaltender interference, 19:55). They began their third overtime in seven postseason games with a lengthy two-man advantage.
They were unable to score on the five-on-three, but Couture’s fourth playoff goal with 26 seconds left on Lewis’ penalty gave the Sharks the invaluable win. The Sharks are trying to win a series after losing the first two games for the first time in franchise history.
Todd McLellan talked about the mood in the dressing room between the third period and overtime.
“Actually I thought we were, even us as coaches, a little too excited and wound up. We needed to calm down a little bit,” he said.
Joe Pavelski, who had an assist on Dan Boyle’s first period power play goal, said: “We were feeling pretty confident we were going to get a good look. We don’t create as much momentum off of the five-on-three as we would have liked, but we got a look or two off it. The guys made a good play on the five-on-four.”
On the winning goal, Couture found a soft spot in the slot before receiving a pass from Patrick Marleau.
“Just a good play by Patty, and was able to get it upstairs,” said Couture, who declared himself fine to play in Game 4.
Couture’s absence, combined with that of Marty Havlat, who left after the first period and did not return, made things complicated for the bench and the coaching staff in the second period with just 10 forwards available and the score knotted at 1-1.
McLellan left the top line of Joe Thornton, Brent Burns and TJ Galiardi together, but the remaining three lines were a juggling act.
It was handled about as well as possible, in his view.
“I thought our game management at that point of the night was as good as it’s been all year as far as shift length, puck management, getting fresh people on the ice,” McLellan said.
Boyle said: “You’ve got to be smart there and keep the shifts a little shorter and I think the guys did a great job of keeping up the pace of play, not doing too much, and just being smart out there.”
The power play also came through for the first time, finishing 2-for-5 after San Jose went a combined 0-for-7 in the first two games. The Sharks didn’t look crisp or dangerous with a man advantage until Game 3.
Jake Muzzin’s delay of game penalty just 90 seconds into the game provided the Sharks the opportunity to put those struggles behind them. They did, on a Boyle one-timer, again on a setup from Marleau. Thornton was in front of the net.
“When I looked up I saw a lane, that often times isn’t there,” Boyle said. “Teams are in position and don’t give you that shot. Credit to the guys in front of the net, too.”
The Kings tied it following a bad giveaway by Stuart to Tyler Toffoli, and the game remained that way until overtime, and Couture’s heroics.
The Sharks, who felt like they played well enough to win the first two games, will get the chance to even it up in front of another capacity crowd.
“We’ve been in the series. We’ve been in it,” Pavelski said. “Coming back [to San Jose] it didn’t feel down 2-0. That’s what it was, but we weren’t necessarily playing that score. We’ve played hard and invested a lot so far. We knew we had to win, and we knew what the series was.”
Marc-Edouard Vlasic said: “We’ve still got a long way to go, but it’s nice to get that first one.”
With Couture healthy and strong, three more could conceivably follow.