SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Just over a half period away from staring down a 3-0 series deficit in the Stanley Cup finals, perhaps the cruelest of tricks for a fan base that has waited 25 years just to get here, the San Jose Sharks reminded us Saturday night why this season's squad is indeed different.
In years past, if the big boys ran out of tricks, San Jose grounded to a halt.
But these aren't yesteryear's Sharks.
Two free-agent signings from a year ago provided the heroics Saturday night:Joel Ward with the slap shot heard across the Bay to tie the game 8:32 into the third period and Joonas Donskoi with the roof job 12:18 into overtime, a goal that as of this moment goes down as the biggest in Sharks history.
Everyone take a breath. What a game it was.
The 3-2 overtime win cuts the Pittsburgh Penguins' series lead to 2-1 and gives everyone a little to think about.
For starters, on a night when Sharks center Joe Thornton had two assists and tried all he could to carry his team to victory, nearly ending overtime twice with a pair of chances, he received help from two members of the supporting cast.
"It's been huge," Thornton said of his team's newfound depth this season. "It's the reason we're here. Just different guys scoring big goals. Wardy with that second one was a huge goal and then Donnie to score in overtime. It's game in, game out, different guys stepping up to the plate, and that's the reason we're here."
Not to mention that trade for goalie Martin Jones last summer, right? The 26-year-old has had a spectacular Cup finals; he was downright outstanding Saturday night, making 40 saves.
But Donskoi? The free-agent signing who garnered more attention last May wasArtemi Panerin, whom the Chicago Blackhawks inked to a contract. The Russian put on a show this season en route to a Calder Trophy nomination.
But 19 days after Panerin's signature in Chicago, the Sharks quietly beat out a few other teams to the Finnish league playoff MVP. Sharks fans, and a few Sharks players, immediately went to Google the name D-O-N-S-K-O-I.
The question is, why did Donskoi choose the Sharks?
"They were the first team to show interest in me. That was a big thing," said the Game 3 OT hero. "I think about it with my agent, and I thought [the] Sharks were a great organization doing great work, a lot of great guys, good leaders in guys like Pav and Jumbo, Marleau, Wardo coming in; I thought that would be the type of room for a young guy like me. Great balance. Great organization. I'm so happy that I picked Sharks."
The feeling's mutual.
"He's the real deal, a real good player for us. We wouldn't be here without him," said Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer.
"Donskoi has had an unbelievable playoff season," said Sharks defenseman Justin Braun, who opened the scoring for San Jose. "Tons of skill. And Wardo just seems to find the big goal when we need it. Pretty impressive his track record coming over from Washington and now doing it for us. It's huge."
Seven playoff goals this spring for the veteran Ward. Six playoff goals for Donskoi. That's 13 goals that don't exist without the work of general manager Doug Wilson a year ago.
The other part of the story on this night was the belief this Sharks team has built this spring. Giving up a late second-period goal Saturday night to Patric Hornqvist with less than a minute to go to fall behind 2-1, well, that's the kind of stuff that can kill a team given what's on the line.
Instead, the Sharks rose up to the challenge.
The mood in the dressing room between the third period and overtime?
"We've always felt good; the group's always upbeat," Ward said. "Basically it was pretty chilled and relax. Just come out hard and play our game."
Some people might not believe that, but if you've been around this Sharks team long enough, you know it's what makes them tick. They're a goofy, relaxed group that loves playing hockey together. So despite facing a 3-0 series deficit with another overtime loss, they were Zen before the extra period.
"Calm, veteran group. You don't want to get too antsy," Braun said of the dressing room before overtime. "You just got to go out there and play your game. You lean on your older, veteran guys. They led us tonight."
Speaking of leading the way, Braun and partner Marc-Edouard Vlasic were outstanding in Game 3 in a highly anticipated matchup with Sidney Crosby's unit. The last line change allowed PeterDeBeor to deploy Braun and Vlasic more often against No. 87.
"Yeah, I thought we did a pretty good job tonight," Braun said. "They're such a hard line to play against. They don't stop moving their feet, tons of skill. I thought we did a better job tonight than we did the last couple of games."
Now, the Sharks are hardly out of the woods. They were outshot again by the Penguins, this time 42-26, and still haven't imposed their will like they did in the three previous rounds. Pittsburgh enjoyed long stretches of dominance Saturday night.
But the shot clock didn't paint the entire picture. San Jose enjoyed better quality zone time in this game, a step up from Games 1-2 in Pittsburgh. And the Penguins had a whopping 38 blocked shots, which can be taken in two different ways. Sure, it means the Sharks can be frustrated they're not getting enough through. On the other hand ...
"That's a good sign," Ward said. "If you're playing in the offensive zone, they're blocking shots, you're getting opportunities. Just keep firing away."
So while Brent Burns might get frustrated having 12 of his shot attempts blocked by the Penguins on Saturday night, it also means his team is cooking in the offensive zone.
"They're doing a great job," Burns said of Pittsburgh blocking his shots. "They're sacrificing. We ask our guys to do the same thing. I think those are big reasons why both teams are probably here. You try to get it by the first guy, and if it's a second and third, you hope it bounces somewhere else. They're doing a good job. It's my job to try to get it by those guys and create stuff. It's tough."
Then a light-hearted thought.
"Hopefully they run out of sticks soon," Burns said. "Try to break their budget. We'll see."
The goofballs have life again. Stayed tuned; these Cup finals just became compelling.