The San Jose Sharks did themselves a huge favor Saturday night with a 3-2 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final. It cut their series deficit in half, breathing life into their Stanley Cup hopes once again.
After falling into the 0-2 hole with a pair of losses in Pittsburgh where the Penguins were clearly better than the Sharks despite the tight score lines, San Jose very much became the underdog. With few teams able to beat the Penguins in consecutive games over the last half of the season, the outlook was no doubt bleak.
However, when considering the Sharks' situation and the odds they face in this series, all you have to do is look at their roster to understand that this is a team with players that have been defying odds and expectations their whole careers.
Take for instance the players that had the biggest hand in the huge Game 3 win. Martin Jones, the goaltender who kept his team in it against a barrage of shots, was never drafted. Justin Braun, who scored the game's first goal for the Sharks sparking the first two-game goal scoring streak of his career, was a guy who San Jose took a seventh-round flier on. Joel Ward, who scored the tying goal that forced overtime, might be one of the best underdog stories in the NHL today. While Game 3 hero Joonas Donskoi had a chance to make the NHL and the team that drafted him decided to take a pass.
When you've had a lot of practice shattering expectations and staring dire situations right in the face without flinching, a 2-0 deficit in the Stanley Cup Final may not look as frightening. Now it's only a 2-1 deficit. Even better.
Here's a look at the underdog players who have helped make the underdog Sharks competitive in this Stanley Cup Final:
1. Joel Ward: His third-period goal helped tie Game 3 and allowed Ward to continue building on a career that has been defined by his personal success in the playoffs. However, of all the players to be in this Stanley Cup Final, Ward's career is one that may have been the most improbable.
The burly forward played four years of junior hockey and never got drafted. He didn't even get an offer as an undrafted free agent. So he tried his hand at pro hockey in the low minors before giving that up to utilize his education package from the OHL. Ward played all four years of college at the University of Prince Edward Island. A player that ends up in Canadian university hockey is very rarely going to make it to the NHL, but Ward was undeterred.
He played well enough at UPEI to get an AHL deal with the now-defunct Houston Aeros. It took him one year to earn an NHL deal with the Minnesota Wild, but he remained mostly in the AHL save for an 11-game stint with the Wild. He showed enough there to get an NHL deal with the Nashville Predators as a free agent. He became a full-time NHL player at the ripe old age of 28 years old and he's stayed up since then.
Now 35, Ward has put together an incredible career for someone who got off to the start he did. In 596 NHL games, he has 263 points. Meanwhile, he's been a playoff stud with 48 points in 74 games including 13 points this season. His seven goals in these playoffs have tied his career-high, but he's never scored one bigger than his slapper that somehow squeezed through Matt Murray to tie Game 3.
2. Joonas Donskoi: As a teenager, Donskoi was good enough to be the 99th overall selection by the Florida Panthers in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. The Panthers ended up deciding not to sign Donskoi after some relatively underwhelming seasons in Finland's SM-liiga, the top pro division. He improved some in his age 21 season with Karpat, posting 37 points in 60 games, but his breakout came last season when he had 19 goals and 49 points in 58 contests before going on an absolute tear in the playoffs. Donskoi led the Finnish league with 22 points in 19 games, Karpat won the title and Donskoi was the playoff MVP. He then starred for Finland with eight points in eight games at the World Championship.
After that, the Sharks had a contract ready and waiting for him to sign. The European free agent market has been extremely lucrative for a number of teams in recent years and it looks like the Sharks hit a home run with Donskoi.
Though it took him a while to get going, the Finnish forward has followed up his 36-point campaign from the regular season with 12 in 21 games in the playoffs. He's scored six goals, the last of which just so happened to be the most important in Sharks franchise history.
3. Martin Jones: The goaltending position can be so hard to evaluate when the players are younger. A lot can happen over the course of an individual's development while playing the most volatile position on the ice. Jones was a goalie who had decent numbers in junior and even made the Canadian national junior team, but he couldn't get a sniff at the draft. However, he played well enough to earn an AHL deal from the Los Angeles Kings and really came into his own in the minors with the Manchester Monarchs.
Jones got his first call-up to the NHL during the 2013-14 season and ended up serving as Jonathan Quick's backup through the team's run to the Stanley Cup. The following year, he saw little action behind Quick and the Kings ended up missing the playoffs. He was then part of the package that the Kings sent to the Boston Bruins to acquire Milan Lucic. Shortly thereafter, the Sharks went after him, sending a first-round pick to the Bruins to get the deal done. If Jones doesn't get traded out of the division, the Sharks would have had no shot at landing him.
As a restricted free agent, Jones signed a three-year deal with San Jose with the assumption he'd be their new No. 1. During the first three games of the Stanley Cup Final, he's been by far the team's best player with 106 saves on 113 shots. He made 40 stops in the Sharks' Game 3 win and may be the single biggest reason there's a series at all now.
4. Justin Braun: When a team drafts a guy in the seventh round, it's often a shot in the dark. The scouts have seen at least something in the player that suggests he can make it at the next level, but the odds are long. The Sharks saw that something in Braun during his freshman season at the University of Massachusetts. What they probably didn't expect is that this kid out of UMass was going to force his way onto the NHL roster after his four years of college hockey.
They may not have also expected that this point producer from the blue line in the NCAA (88 points in 150 contests) was going to grow into a player they relied on as a top-four shutdown defenseman. That is what Braun has become, though, playing alongside Marc-Edouard Vlasic for the last few seasons. However, in the last two games, Braun has surprised everyone with the first two-game goal scoring streak of his career.
The talented defenseman, playing with a heavy heart amid the passing of his father-in-law and former NHL player Tom Lysiak last week, has scored goals in each of the last two games. He helped tie Game 2 in the closing minutes of regulation and scored the Sharks' first goal in Game 3.
5. Joe Pavelski: There are few draft steals in recent memory as valuable as Pavelski. The Sharks captain has been held quiet in the Stanley Cup Final so far, but how many seventh-round draft picks grow up to become one of the best goal scorers in the NHL?
Pavelski, who may have been misevaluated by scouts in his draft year, was a star for the Waterloo Black Hawks in the USHL. He was not the biggest guy, but even then, he was a scorer. Still, he had to wait until the seventh round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft when the Sharks finally selected him 205th overall.
To be fair to the talent evaluators out there, Pavelski's goal scoring prowess at the NHL level has only materialized more recently. Pavelski played five full seasons before he started putting up numbers like the elite goal scorers in the NHL. Only Alex Ovechkin (224) and Steven Stamkos (193) have more goals than Pavelski's 163 since 2011-12.
If there's one thing we've learned about Pavelski, even as he struggles to produce in the Final, he'll put in the work to get things right. His best is yet to come.