SAN JOSE – For any team that’s fortunate enough to capture the Stanley Cup, unlikely heroes always emerge along the way.
The Sharks got their first in the clinching Game 5 win against the Kings on Friday. Joonas Donskoi, who had yet to find the back of the net in the series, scored the two biggest goals of the night as San Jose punched its ticket to the second round with a 6-3 win at Staples Center.
Donskoi opened the scoring with a beautiful toe-drag goal around Jake Muzzin, going top shelf over Jonathan Quick just 1:08 into the game. Later, he was able to fend off Drew Doughty while carrying the puck deep into the offensive zone, and seconds later smacked in a puck from in front of the net for the third period game-winner.
The 24-year-old briefly recapped each score after the game.
“That’s one of our big things for this whole series, to get good starts. I think we did it again tonight, so it was a huge goal,” he said of his opening marker.
As for the goal that put San Jose ahead to stay, Donskoi said: “Just tried to beat [Doughty] on the wall, so that’s kind of what the whole series has been all about. Just hard battles on the boards.”
The rookie, of course, was getting his first taste of playoff hockey, and it was quite a sampling. In fact, no player was on the receiving end of bigger hits from Kings players more than Donskoi, who seemed to be a target for the two-time Stanley Cup champs.
In Game 2, Luke Schenn ran over Donskoi late in the first period with a heavy, open ice body check. In Game 3, Donskoi was plowed over by Dustin Brown, helping to generate Tanner Pearson’s overtime winner. In Game 4, Donskoi drew a high-sticking minor on Jamie McBain, who inadvertently whacked the Sharks forward in the face with a high-stick.
In Game 5, Donskoi made them all pay.
“They’re a physical team. A lot of hits were thrown each way,” Logan Couture said. “But with him, he takes his hits and gets back up and works hard.”
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Donskoi wasn’t exactly on Pete DeBoer’s radar for a roster spot at the team’s rookie camp in July, after Donskoi signed as a free agent with the Sharks on May 20.
“All I knew was he had a good year in the Finnish league, and I think an NHL coach automatically says, ‘OK, he’ll help our American League team this year and then we’ll see how he does,’” DeBoer said.
It was a rookie game against Anaheim on Sep. 12, though, that the Finland native made everyone take notice. After that two-goal performance, AHL coach Roy Sommer had a feeling that he might not see Donskoi down on the farm team.
“He was impressive. He sees the ice real well, and if he plays like that I don’t know if he’ll be a Barracuda,” Sommer said.
About a week later in NHL camp, Donskoi was opening DeBoer’s eyes, too.
“He’s had a good start. I think he’s caught our attention,” DeBoer said on Sep. 20.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Donskoi in his first NHL season, though. A lower body injury related to a blocked shot on Oct. 10 kept him out for five games, and later in December and January he had brief stints on the fourth line. He also had a pair of 14-game stretches without scoring. He finished the season with 11 goals and 36 points in 76 games, and was chosen as the team's Rookie of the Year by the local media.
Now, he’s fully a part of the Sharks’ depth that, according to DeBoer, was the biggest key to San Jose getting past Los Angeles, and something that the Sharks as an organization haven't had in years.
“Our depth won us this series, for me,” DeBoer said.