A season-long commitment to developing depth paid major dividends at a most crucial time. The secondary players led by talented Finnish rookie Joonas Donskoi‘s two goals delivered the bulk of the scoring in San Jose’s 6-3 victory Friday night over the nemesis Los Angeles Kings, which sent the Sharks to the second round of the playoffs for just the second time since 2011.
After memorably blowing a 3-0 first-round series lead to Los Angeles two years ago and missing the playoffs entirely last season, the Sharks might finally have all the ingredients to make the long playoff run that has eluded them during a decade of regular-season success led by stars like Thornton and Marleau.
“Our depth was great all series,” defenceman Brent Burns said. “We had four lines going. We had six D. That was a series where our depth really shined. The hits guys are taking to make plays, blocking shots, the guys really stepped up and played a great series.”
While Thornton anchored a top line that dominated play throughout the series, he was kept off the scoresheet entirely in the clincher. Thornton also didn’t score in the Game 1 win, marking the only two times since the 2007 playoffs that San Jose scored at least four goals without either a goal or an assist from the player known as Jumbo.
Thornton had just three points in the entire series, but it proved to be enough. While Pavelski (five goals, one assist) and Burns (two goals, six assists) carried the bulk of the scoring, it was the lower line players and first-year starting goalie Martin Jones who came through at the end.
Donskoi, who quickly established himself as a key player on the second line centred by Logan Couture this season, opened the scoring 68 seconds into the game and then delivered the game-winner early in the third after San Jose had squandered a 3-0 lead. Donskoi warded off top defender Drew Doughty on his way to the net and then came around the crease to take a pass from Burns and knock it in to put San Jose up 4-3.
“You don’t come in expecting to score two goals, but we can’t only rely on our first-line guys,” Donskoi said. “We have to get goals from all four lines, and that’s what we were able to do tonight.”
Fourth-line centre Chris Tierney also scored his first career playoff goal and second-year forward Melker Karlsson sealed it with an empty-netter for his first post-season goal. Third-line winger Matt Nieto also got involved when he scored to make it 3-0.
Coach Peter DeBoer’s commitment to rolling four lines and using all three defensive pairs paid off.
“The guys really stepped up, matched that, and found a way,” Pavelski said. “It’s step one for us. It’s not going to win us anything. It’s going to get us closer. We’re going to be able to take a few things from it, but the biggest message out of this is it feels good. We’ll enjoy it, we’ll get some rest, and it’s just step one.”
The only one of the big stars to score a goal was the captain, Pavelski, whose insurance goal midway through the third gave San Jose a two-goal lead that helped ease the tension in the final minutes.
But it was all the help he got that make rivals like Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter believe that this post-season could be different for the Sharks, who have the second most wins in the NHL since 2003-04 but no trips to the Stanley Cup to show for it.
“They’re set,” Sutter said. “They look really good. They’ve got the good depth down the middle, they have good speed, and that six on defence is as good as you’re going to put together right now. They’ve got two goalies that are competing against each other that are really good, so I wish them luck.”