For all the people who reflexively said “We have a series” when Joonas Donskoi’s brilliantly lifted roof-job beat Matt Murray 12:18 into overtime in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, let us caution you.
What we have here is a series worth continuing with.
Donskoi’s goal, which completed an unlikely San Jose comeback and gave the Sharks a 3-2 win to shave the Pittsburgh Penguins’ advantage to 2-1, came at the end of a wide-open, chance filled extra period that finally produced for us a game reflective of the relative levels of the teams involved.
In other words, the Sharks, who had been much the inferior side through much of the series, finally became competitive in the pursuit of loose pucks, zone time and general in-your-facetude.
And conversely, the Penguins, who had it all their own way through much of the first two games and enough of the third, are now fully engaged with the notion that this will not be a gentle walk to the podium.
Pittsburgh continued to do a proper job bottling up the Sharks’ top line of Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Melker Karlsson, filling in for the wounded Tomas Hertl. But the Sharks were much more engaged with the Sidney Crosby line (with Patrik Hornqvist and Conor Sheary) than they had been, and made an even fight out of what had been a sadly lopsided one.
[RECAP: Instant Replay: Donskoi OT winner saves Sharks in Game 3]
Put another way, the goal scorers were those Canadian household names Lovejoy, Braun, Hornqvist, Ward and Donskoi, and the big shifts in momentum in a tedious game that took its sweet time finding its legs came with players other than the big names.
Oh, Joe Thornton picked up two assists because that’s what he does to anyone with the good fortune be on the ice with him, but he also was caught after the game trying to smuggle a quail’s egg beneath his right eye. In other words, we have not a series, but the start of a very unkind 40-man relationship.
San Jose’s need was clearly greater, but for the third straight game they started sluggishly, giving up a knuckleball goal by Ben (the Lovejoy to whom we referred earlier) at 5:29. Indeed, it took them 14 minutes to get a shot from a forward, but by then they had tied the game on an against-the-run-of-play drive from second-pairing/first-performing defense pair member Justin Braun. He sailed one from the “C” on “Stanley Cup” inside the blue line and beat Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray over his left shoulder.
He and mate Marc-Edouard Vlasic were also on the ice for most of the Crosby line’s lack of shenanigans, so if truth be told, theirs were the most important performances of the night for San Jose.
But for all that, the Sharks nearly committed big-game self-defenestration yet again when they allowed Hornqvist to tip a Lovejoy shot past Martin Jones with 52.7 seconds left in the second period – the kind of deflating goal that always seems to happen to the locals in big late-spring moments.
And then they saved themselves, first with a 45-foot drive from Ward after Thornton had pressured a turnover at the very end of a four-minute power play granted them by Nick Bonino’s high stick, and then with Donskoi’s bad-angle roofer in extra time.
And they did it with depth rather than hitching their wagon to the big names. Pavelski managed only one shot in 25:58 (though he was 10-3 in faceoffs), Logan Couture had only one 26:14. Of Patrick Marleau’s three shots, two came in overtime with a couple of gilt-edged misses as well, and defenseman Brent Burns both frustrated and scared the customers by (a) having a full dozen shots blocked (four got through, none containing any peril), and getting caught up ice several times, compromising partner Paul Martin.
The plays that saved this series ultimately came from the other Sharks – Donskoi and Vlasic and Braun and Ward and Chris Tierney, not to mention Thornton, who remains the team’s puck-distributing Everyman. The Sharks’ much-advertised depth turned out to be, well, deep enough to keep Pittsburgh’s speed from becoming the deciding issue for a third consecutive game.
So now there’s a Monday game that doesn’t end what had been a lackluster series, because the series has stopped being lackluster. San Jose found what got them through the Western Conference, and what will get them through the rest of their season – which is now at least one game longer than it might have been of one of the game’s best Penguins – Lovejoy and Brian Rust and Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin and Sheary and Tom Kuhnhackl and Eric Fehr – put the last dagger in.
“This is the first time we’ve had the lead in the series,” head coach Peter DeBoer said, while noting that technically, they haven’t been on the ice for a single second of playing time with the lead in the series. “We’ve got to find a way to get out in front. We’ve been playing from behind too much."
And they’re still behind as day dawns. But behind and doomed are two very different things, and if nothing else, the Sharks showed that they are not fighting above their weight any more, or running a sprint when they are more suited to distance. That counts for plenty in any series, but especially this last one.