Just 15 minutes in the Rockies, and the San Jose Sharks were gasping for air.
The Colorado Avalanche had rolled out to a 9-2 shots advantage at 5-on-5. The score was tied, but it appeared to just be a matter of time before the visitors would get buried.
That was when Joonas Donskoi (27) pushed back.
Erik Johnson (6) eluded the forechecking Evander Kane (9). Donskoi, however, pressured Johnson to drop the puck back to a hard-charging Samuel Girard (49).
Girard entered with speed, but Erik Karlsson (65) had him ticketed. Karlsson’s stick and skating forced Girard to curl back from in deep.
Girard tossed it to the point, where Nathan MacKinnon (29) was covering for him. This is where Donskoi went to work on the Hart finalist.
Donskoi took full advantage of the speedster standing still. Ignoring Girard’s moving screen, Donskoi used a quick stick to prevent MacKinnon from blasting off. The puck now going the other way, the Finnish winger used his free hand to gain inside position.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic (44) activated on the weak side, giving Donskoi a critical outlet. Vlasic then rang a shot off Philipp Grubauer’s mask and out.
Off the ensuing draw, Melker Karlsson was held by Patrick Nemeth. Shortly thereafter, Matt Calvert high sticked Joe Pavelski. Brent Burns would then give San Jose a perhaps undeserved lead after 20, which would propel the Sharks to a 5-4 victory.
But big plays like Burns’ booming slapshot don’t happen without little plays like Donskoi’s.
It’s also worth noting: Donskoi was caught leaning the wrong way on Johnson’s pass to Girard — his stick was shaded toward Gabriel Landeskog (92) at the blueline. Donskoi also couldn’t stop Girard from feeding MacKinnon — the pass slid underneath his stick. But Donskoi kept his stick active and feet moving.
Donskoi would be rewarded for his tenacity later. He jumped on the ice after a couple San Jose cycles and shredded some tired Avs — Sheldon Dries (15) and Logan O’Connor (25) both clocked 1:32 on this shift — before chasing Grubauer with this wrap-around:
Donskoi pointed out, “That’s what I feel like my game is all about — playing hard both ways, staying hard on the puck.”
In 2016, Donskoi was a key role player in San Jose’s run to the Stanley Cup Final. Game-changing shifts like last night’s suggest that a repeat performance could be at hand.