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Winning Play: Stanley Cup contenders?

From Erik Karlsson to Brent Burns to Joe Thornton, the San Jose Sharks certainly boast big-name stars.

But it’s lesser-known players making little plays consistently that are the substance of a true Stanley Cup contender.

To a man, that’s what the Sharks looked like last night in a convincing 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Tomas Hertl’s (48) “big ass” starred here, but Evander Kane (9) and Joonas Donskoi (27) were key supporting players, creating valuable time and space.

After Marcus Pettersson (28) knocked down Kane, who had gained the zone with a full head of steam, Donskoi subtly checked a fallen Pettersson in the back.

Pettersson recovered from Donskoi’s attempt to slow him down. But Kane followed by bullying him, gaining enough position in front to screen Matt Murray. Meanwhile, Donskoi occupied Jack Johnson (73).

Evgeni Malkin in the dust, Hertl and Donskoi enjoyed a 2-on-1 against Johnson. As Hertl approached, Donskoi curled off Johnson, manufacturing another shooting option.

Hertl now had a runway to pick a corner.

“We’re hungry as a group in the O-zone,” Joe Pavelski noted.

Chasing the long stretch pass, Marcus Sorensen (20) managed to keep the puck alive against Brian Dumoulin (8). Sorensen kept working — it looked like his stick also bothered Jake Guentzel’s (59) clear. Burns (88) threw the puck in deep to Joe Thornton (19).

Sorensen crashed the net, no Pen picking him up. Pavelski (8) also attacked the net, sowing chaos. While Sorensen failed to score in the confusion, the puck stayed alive for Radim Simek (51) to claim.

As Simek pinched, Thornton rotated to cover for his defenseman. Simek flashed some vision by connecting with Pavelski on the cross-ice pass.

We’re used to Pavelski one-timing it, but this time, he showed off his playmaking ability. He suckered in both a sliding, shot blocking Dumoulin and a collapsing Bryan Rust (17) and Guentzel, then saw Thornton high. Pavelski’s patience bought Thornton some time and space to hammer the puck home. Naturally, Simek helped screen Murray.

Pavelski — in part because of his Cy Young-like goals-to-assists ratio — has been accused of not making his teammates better. This play and Corey Sznajder’s tracking data suggest the contrary:

Despite his diminishing speed, Pavelski moves the puck with pace in small spaces.

Pavelski observed, “We seemed to get a lot of pucks below the goal line. On our entries, our chances, once we attacked the first time, we were able to get it back, force them to stop, play d-zone a bit. That killed some of their speed at times.”

Once again, each forward on the Hertl line made a little play that led to a big result.

A set play, Kane and Brenden Dillon (4) switched to feature Kane’s shot from the point. Phil Kessel (81) quickly closed on Kane, so Kane went D-to-D to Justin Braun (61).

Donskoi intentionally skated into Riley Sheahan’s (15) stick, creating a soft pick that prevented Sheahan from closing on Braun. Sheahan would complain to no avail.

Hertl backed in, spun and locked sticks on Pettersson, eventually slipping free.

All night, San Jose was winning puck battles, buying each other time and covering for each other defensively, en route to another statement victory over a tough opponent.

Pete DeBoer was pleased: “That was as complete a game as we’ve played all year.”

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