By Steve Silverman
» More Columns
When assessing any postseason series — no matter what the sport — it’s usually all about the superstars and how well they are going to perform that is going to decide the series.
The Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, while the Sharks have Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.
Crosby and Malkin are both all-time great players. When the current list of top players is discussed, Crosby is almost always at the top, and even though he got off to a relatively slow start in the regular season, he is a legitimate Hart Trophy (MVP) candidate this year. Malkin has been a magical performer over the years, and his individual skills often separate him from other great players in the league.
Thornton has long been considered one of the best set-up men in the league, and while he has drawn plenty of criticism over the years for falling short in the postseason, there’s little doubt about the impact he has had since coming into the league in 1997. Marleau has been a consistent and powerful goal scorer since that same year, but he has also endured difficulty during the playoffs.
But while all four are having an impact through the first three games of the championship, the lesser-known players on both teams have been the decisive players thus far.
Joonas Donskoi may be fairly well known in northern California, but few expected him to be an impact player with the Stanley Cup on the line. Donskoi scored the game-winner in overtime Saturday night and breathed life into the San Jose Sharks when he picked up a loose puck behind the net, wheeled around in front of the net and ripped a sharp wrister to the top corner over Penguins goalie Matt Murray.
Donskoi has had six goals and six assists in the playoffs, and that comes on the heels of a rookie season in which he had 11 goals and 25 assists. While those numbers weren’t overly impressive, Donskoi’s speed and quickness in the offensive zone have given him a chance to make game-changing plays fairly regularly.
Penguins rookie Conor Sheary scored the winning goal in Game 2 at the Consol Energy Center early in overtime. After Crosby won a faceoff, Kris Letang wound up to take a slap shot from the left point. However, instead of trying to fire the puck through a sea of legs and bodies, he changed his angle and flicked a short pass to Sheary. While the puck was just a few inches behind him, Sheary corralled it and then fired a wrist shot over Sharks goalie Martin Jones’ glove for the decisive score.
Sheary has plenty of speed and aggressiveness, and he has registered four goals and five assists during the Penguins’ playoff run. Sheary was a part-time player during the regular season, with just seven goals and three assists in 44 game, but he has the talent to take on a much bigger role in the future.
Sheary is not the only Penguins’ youngster to have an impact in the postseason. Bryan Rust scored a key goal in Game 6 and then a pair in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against Tampa Bay. Rust also scored the opening goal in Game 1 against San Jose, and his ability to go into the corner, battle for the puck and make a key play has been vital for head coach Mike Sullivan.
Like Sheary, Rust’s postseason performance has been a complete surprise for the Penguins. He has six goals and three assists in the playoffs, and that comes on the heels of registering four goals and seven assists during the regular season.
Nick Bonino has not been a star since coming into the NHL as a rookie in 2009-10, and he did not do much for the Penguins this year from a statistical point of view. He totaled nine goals and 20 assists, and he has had just one 20-goal season in his career.
But that has not stopped Bonino from being one of the Penguins’ best players during this year’s postseason run. He scored the game-winner in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, and he has four goals and 13 assists during the postseason.
Bonino has shown a willingness to go to the front of the net, take the abuse from the defense and still find a way to make the play be scoring a key goal or setting up a teammate.
The Sharks’ Justin Braun and Marc-Edouard Vlasic have also had strong postseasons on defense even though neither player is viewed as a superstar.
The expectations are that Crosby, Malkin, Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski will dominate for their teams in the Stanley Cup Final. The reality is that role players have done just as much to this point, and they will likely do the same thing as the series moves into its decisive stages.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy