Joonas Donskoi scored two goals and otherwise looked untouchable as he nearly single-handedly saved the Sharks from a hapless defeat against the Arizona Coyotes. The topsy-turvy affair, which San Jose won 6-5 in overtime, was exciting but all too representative of how San Jose has played of late.
The second quarter of the season has been unkind to the Sharks. They’ve seen their offense and defense take steps backward. Though they are still an above-average team, that may be all they are at the moment. Even their early-season Superman, Joonas Donskoi suffered through a multi-game streak where the Sharks were outshot with him on the ice. A glance at team unblocked shot rates can tell us, quickly, how well a team is performing. The Sharks’ movement into the realm of mediocrity shows that everyone, not just Donskoi, has found it difficult to keep the team’s goal differential positive.
For one night at least, it wasn’t supposed to matter. The Arizona Coyotes, a team that seems to have spun its wheels only to dig itself deeper into a rut, was playing in San Jose on the second night of back-to-backs against a team fresh off its bye week. In Arizona’s favor was just the second game with their healthy blueline as they had envisioned it after trading for players like Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jason Demers skated together. The Coyotes also possessed something of a kryptonite for San Jose: in the 25 games preceding their matchup in San Jose, Arizona’s penalty kill allowed the lowest rate of shots, the second-lowest rate of unblocked shots and the third-lowest rate of high danger chances against.
San Jose could enter the game confident in three forward lines that had, to date, all controlled at least 55 percent of shots at 5v5. It was a good sign, then, when San jose scored early, not seven minutes into the 1st period, when Joe Pavelski sent, from behind the net, a pass that Joe Thornton would’ve been proud of to Jumbo’s stick, which quickly deposited the disk behind Arizona’s backup goalie Scott Wedgewood.
Since changing the defense pairs about 13 games into the season, San Jose’s defenders have suffered from a distinct lack of defense, allowing one of the highest rates of high-danger scoring chances, according to naturalstattrick.com. As is wont to happen when scoring chances abound, Arizona promptly responded to San Jose’s opening salvo with a Derek Stepan goal that squeezed between Martin Jones’ arm and chest.
Fortunately for San Jose’s even-strength scoring woes, the same Stepan who so recently helped his team erase an early deficit committed a boarding penalty against Joonas Donskoi, sending one of the league’s best power plays onto the ice. Despite presenting a challenging penalty kill, Arizona coughed up a goal to Joe Pavleski and San Jose just seconds into the power play. It was a sign, perhaps, that everything might go San Jose’s way when it was revealed Pavelski’s shot deflected off former Shark Jason Demers’ stick.
The hockey gods deemed the tilted ice would reset its kilter soon afterward, however, a wet blanket upon the brief fire San Jose appeared to have lit after its quick power play goal. A Derek Stepan shot deflected off of Justin Braun’s leg into the back of Jones’ net shortly afterward, warding the Coyotes’ their second tying goal of the evening.
A wonderful individual effort by Joonas Donksoi not even a minute later saw San Jose take another lead, after a stick-handling-while-falling-to-the-ice clinic through multiple defenders and a perfect pass to Logan Couture’s stick for an easy goal. It would not signal a momentum shift, however, as Arizona would score before the crowd could return with their first period beers on a Christian Fischer breakaway that would usher Aaron Dell onto the ice in relief of Jones.
Despite a clear early push and a 28-13 shot advantage at 5v5 through the first period, San Jose walked carefully back to their dressing room tied 3-3 with the league’s perennial basement dweller. The Barlcay Goodrow, Marcus Sorensen, Melker Karlsson line struggled through the first period with a team-worst -2 shot deficit. That fact was not surprising given both wingers’ frustrating seasons.
The Chris Tierney - Mikkel Boedker - Joonas Donskoi line posted a perfect 10-0 shot differential in the first period. It was no wonder Couture scored after changing onto the ice, after the play above. It was a wonder that third line didn’t have any other goals to show for their efforts. Donskoi, in particular, looked like an NHLer among junior midgets, simultaneously weaving in and out of traffic and unraveling defenders’ crossovers.
It was as if the hockey gods heard Donskoi’s prayers during the first intermission, rewarding him with a superstar-esque dangle wherein he dragged the puck under a defender’s stick, through his own legs, off his skate to back to his stick blade before losing control of the puck inches in front of the goal. The dam would not hold forever, however, because Donskoi was able to steal a puck near the opposing blueline before beating Wedgewood to the bouncing rubber and getting just enough of it to tip it bouncing into the net.
With Donskoi on the ice, San Jose’s chances of scoring goals rise, a dorsal fin through the frozen surface. Though his back and forth, physics-defying antics seemed wild and uncontrolled, even by NHL standards, Donskoi has been dazzling opposing defenders since his rookie season in San Jose.
The numbers after two reiterated the team San Jose has become, to a degree. Despite leading the 5v5 shot board 54-24, San Jose only led Arizona by 3 in the high-danger scoring chance column. The Tomas Hertl, Logan Couture, Kevin Labanc line led the second period, leaping to the top of the shot differential list. In what might surprise some, Timo Meier and Joe Thornton led the team with five individual high-danger scoring chances each after the game’s first two thirds despite finding the back of the net only once. That frustrating ratio has been the bane of the team’s first line so far this season, as it remains unable to turn expected goals into actual goals at a rate necessary to compete with the league’s 30 other top lines.
Like so many other positives the Sharks seem to muster at this point in their season, the their latest goal in tonight’s firefight was answered soon after it was scored. Oliver Ekman-Larsson let fly a dazzling wrister from the point that careened off of Tim heed’s shoulder and over poor Aaron Dell’s helpless shoulder into the back of the net.
San Jose would not be undone. Rather than allow their back-and-forth play to consume them entirely, San Jose instead allowed another goal from a Josh Archibald wrist shot that snuck its way past a sightless Dell.
With just 15 seconds left in the game, trailing by a goal, of course San Jose would find its savior in the form of a man who has been, frankly, saving them all season. After blocking a shot in front of their open net, Joonas Donskoi would skate the length of the ice and arrive at the Arizona goal mouth just in time to tap a rebound home for the tying goal.
Overtime continued much as the game did, with San Jose dominating the shot differential category. The turbulent affair mercifully allowed poor fans to breathe once again after a seemingly endless string of saves from Scott Wedgewood. A Joe Pavelski shot from a typically brilliant Joe Thornton pass bounced off Wedgewood’s back, off Christian Dvorak’s skate and into the goal for the game winner.
San Jose managed to turn in one of their best shot differential performances on the season, notching 65 percent of all 5v5 shots and unblocked shots and 63 percent of high-danger scoring chances. Still, that they allowed eight high-danger scoring chances of their own suggests the team has yet to address its defensive leaks. They’ll have to figure out what leaves the sieve open in their own end, lest the continue to make things close with the league’s worst teams.