After 25 years of waiting, Sharks fans greeted the first Stanley Cup Final game in San Jose with thunderous noise and raw emotion. The Shark Tank pulsated with color and roars and expectations leading up to the first drop of the puck Saturday night. Fortunately for the Sharks, that fervor intensified to an even higher level of pandemonium nearly four hours later when a Finnish rookie named Joonas Donskoi scored the latest Biggest Goal In Franchise History.
Donskoi connected for the overtime winner with a turnaround snap shot to give the Sharks a 3-2 win against the Penguins, and the celebration was nearly seismic. After years of dazzling regular seasons and promising playoff beginnings, the Sharks finally had broken through to hockey's biggest stage. But by dropping the first two games of the series in Pittsburgh, Game 3 for the Sharks took on the feel of having to make a last stand at the same time they were trying enjoy a first kiss.
They hadn't held the lead in either game at Pittsburgh, and that was the case again Saturday, which generated plenty of tense moments leading up to Donskoi's strike.
"It was electric," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. "It was amazing to stand back there. You could tell that these people have been waiting a long time. I think the guys really wanted to play hard for them. I thought we were a little jittery early probably because of that. I thought once we settled in, they were a big help for us. It was a grind of a game out there. They were playing hard. They knew that they would have put us in a deep, deep hole tonight had they won. Our desperation level was as high as it could be. Fans were a big help for us tonight."
So was Joel Ward, who scored the tying goal in the third period.
Perhaps it was fitting that Ward and Donskoi delivered those two goals. For years, the Sharks' core of star players, notably Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, took the lion's share of heat for repeated playoff stumbles. But this year the biggest difference for the Sharks isn't necessarily an upgrade from the stars but rather the contributions of the supporting cast.
"It's the reason we're here," Thornton said. "Different guys score big goals."
Ward was an under-the-radar, free-agent signing for three years and $9.825 million. He scored two goals in Games 5 and 6 of the Western Conference Final against St. Louis and supplied the clutch marker again Saturday just as a power play was about to expire.
Donskoi was originally a fourth-round pick of the Florida Panthers in 2010, but he was never signed to a contract. After the Panthers gave up their rights to him, the Sharks grabbed him last year. Nobody really noticed. In fact, Sharks forward Logan Couture said Donskoi caught his eye with some impressive skills during captains skate before training camp but had to do a search online to find out who he was. He ended up watching some flashy shootout moves on YouTube.
"He was undrafted and unsigned, so he plays with that chip on his shoulder," Couture said.
DeBoer wasn't even expecting Donskoi to make the team.
"I met Joonas at our development camp last July," DeBoer said. "I heard about his season in Finland. Our guys, everyone, felt that he had a chance to play down the road. I think everyone first saw him starting in the American League. He was our best player in development camp. We went on to the main camp, he was the best player in the main camp, exhibitions. He just kept jumping over hurdles.
"He's the real deal, a real good player for us. We wouldn't be here without him."
This was Donskoi's sixth goal of the playoffs after posting 11 during the regular season.
"He plays way beyond his years," Sharks defenseman Brent Burns said. "Pretty special moment. Overtime winner. Stanley Cup Finals. Pretty badass."
Donskoi said the Sharks were the first team to show interest in him.
"I thought: Might have room for a young guy like me, so that would be a great balance," he said in reference to the veteran core players.
For this one memorable night anyway, it was the perfect combination. The Penguins are still ahead in the series 2-1, and their speed and shot-blocking have given the Sharks some trouble. But for Sharks fans who have almost become conditioned to anticipate a snakebite in the playoffs, Donskoi's roofer -- appropriate for shot location and blowing the top off the arena -- this was an outcome they deserved. Even if the rest of the series ends up going the Penguins' way, for one rollicking evening where a quarter-century of frustration burst like a broken dam, San Jose was on top of the hockey world.
"Couldn't have scripted it any better," Couture said. "Loud. Fans were into it from the start. Everything was going. Marshawn Lynch was out there opening the door. Pretty cool."
If you're unsure about how to pronounce Joonas Donskoi, let this broadcast from Finland be your guide:
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