Joonas Donskoi nets slice of Sharks history

If casual hockey fans didn’t know who Joonas Donskoi was before Saturday night, they do now.

The Finnish rookie scored the biggest goal in Sharks’ franchise history, netting an overtime game-winner to give San Jose a 3-2 win over the Penguins in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final. Staring a potentially insurmountable 3-0 series deficit in the eye, Donskoi’s tally with more than 12 minutes gone by in overtime gave the Sharks new life on hockey’s biggest stage.

But as the hockey world quickly came to know, Donskoi is not one for the center of attention. Teammates described him as “quiet,” and his postgame press conference was more apt for a game in February than the Stanley Cup Final.

Game 3 coverage from SAP Center Sharks claw toward Cup with Game 3 OT win.

His thoughts on his goal?

“I think I’ve had a lot of scoring chances throughout the whole Final, and this was a good time to get it in.”

The assembled media laughed. Dude, you just scored the biggest goal in franchise history, like, 20 minutes ago:

“We just got the first win of the Stanley Cup Final. I don’t think about that too much. Now we get going, and we have to get better. Just, yeah. Bring at least the same effort next game. Don’t think about the results too much. Just keep going.”

Another reporter prodded him on the last time he scored a game-winning goal, perhaps in Finland, where Donskoi played six seasons after being drafted but not signed by the Panthers in 2010:

“I don’t remember, to be honest. Last year, I scored in a Game 7.”

Overtime?

“No, regulation.”

Winning goal?

“Uh, no.”

With that came more laughter, perhaps over the absurdity of a Stanley Cup Final hero answering questions like he was going through customs at the airport.

But that’s who Donskoi is, an unassuming, humble, 24-year-old who kept pushing and fighting when everyone said no. He signed with the Sharks as a free agent before this season, and earned his way onto the club.

Logan Couture, Donskoi’s linemate, saw the rookie’s work ethic first hand:

“He came in and nothing was given to him from the start. He worked for everything. He was on the bike, as soon as the game ends. He was someone who was drafted and not signed. He has that chip on his shoulder that he has something to prove.”

When he first saw Donskoi, Couture looked him up on YouTube and was impressed by his shootout goals — and Donskoi certainly impressed in the NHL with some fabulous goals in the shootout.

But he did so much more. He worked his way up to the second line and played with established veterans in Couture and Patrick Marleau. He scored 11 goals and 25 assists in 76 games regular season games, and his six playoff goals are tied with Pittsburgh’s Bryan Rust for most in the league among rookies.

Head coach Pete DeBoer admitted that nearly everyone thought he would start the season in the AHL. But Donskoi’s performance early on forced his hand:

“He was our best player in development camp. He went on to main camp. He was the best player in main camp, exhibitions, and just kept jumping over hurdles. He’s the real deal. He’s a very good player for us, and we wouldn’t be here without him.”

At 6-feet, 180 pounds, Donskoi isn’t the biggest player. But he makes up for it with other attributes, as Couture described:

“He handles the puck well. Long stick, and he uses that to his advantage.”

Joe Pavelski said:

“There were moments in training camp, we were skating with him and we knew he could play. His hockey sense was smart. He could have that puck and play with it. He wanted it.”

All of the above paid dividends on Saturday. As the clocked ticked past the midway mark of the first overtime session, with the two teams trading chances and the tension at SAP Center at an all-time high, Donskoi calmly stepped up, used his strengths, and delivered.

Receiving the puck from Chris Tierney on the low boards, Donskoi used his long stick, wheeled quickly around the net and away from Evgeni Malkin, and fired a laser in between Malkin and Justin Schultz, up high and past the left shoulder of Penguins’ goaltender Matt Murray.

Bedlam ensued, the season salvaged, the sold-out crowd at the Shark Tank just waiting — no, pleading — for a reason to celebrate, got its wish, and a hero was born — albeit the most modest hero in Sharks history.

But every hero needs a nickname, right? A reporter suggested “donkey” to Couture, who shook his head:

“I don’t call him that. I call him Donsk. He doesn’t like donkey. I’ve played on his line for most of the season. I don’t call him that. I don’t want to piss him off.”

A pissed off, emotional Joonas Donskoi? Now that would be a sight.