The Sharks owed the end of their four-game losing streak, tied for the longest this season, largely to the offensive contributions of a somewhat unexpected trio.
Yes, Logan Couture, San Jose’s leading scorer and arguable MVP, gave his team a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. But, Joonas Donskoi, Kevin Labanc, and Justin Braun continued their surprisingly productive seasons with involvement on each of the Sharks’ three goals in Thursday night’s win against the Colorado Avalanche.
Donskoi, arguably the least-unlikely of the bunch, scored what ended up being the game-winning goal. It was his 14th of the season, extending his in-progress career-high. Rather, we should say his NHL-high, but this year is still just the third time in his professional career he’s found the back of the net 14 (or more) times in a single season, and the first since his last season in Finland’s SM-liiga (19 goals in 2014-15).
We’ve written at length about Donskoi’s importance this season, so we’ll sum it up with this: Among the forwards that have played 300-plus minutes five-on-five, only Logan Couture has scored primary points (goals and primary assists) at a higher rate per hour (1.65) than Donskoi (1.62), according to Natural Stat Trick,
Labanc, meanwhile, assisted on Couture’s power-play goal prior to Donskoi’s. The second-year winger’s continued success on the power play shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise, considering he racked up 102 of his 308 regular season and playoff points in junior on the man advantage.
His continued opportunity, on the other hand, certainly is. Remember, Labanc was in the AHL as recently as November (albeit for a two-game stint) and was sent down to the Barracuda in the middle of the Sharks’ first-round series with the Oilers a year ago. San Jose banked on the 22-year-old taking a step forward in his second season, but surely didn’t expect him to become one of the league’s best setup men on the power play.
Labanc’s primary assiste rate (3.23 per hour) on the man advantage is 11th-best among skaters that have played at least 150 power play minutes this season and ahead of names like Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon, John Tavares, and Steven Stamkos, among others. If you expected Labanc to keep that kind of company this season, would you mind pointing us in the direction of some lottery numbers?
But of all the players who got on the scoresheet Thursday, Justin Braun’s undoubtedly been the biggest surprise this year. He opened the scoring with a deflected shot from the blueline, and set a new career-high with his fifth goal of the season.
Braun added to his career-high in points, too, as the goal was his 33rd point of the season. That’s 10 points better than his previous best, which he reached twice in his only prior 20-point campaigns.
All of those points have come at even strength, too. While Braun’s undoubtedly benefited from a career-high in five-on-five ice time per game (17:23) as well the best five-on-five shooting percentage (4.63) of his career, he draws the same difficult defensive assignments as partner Marc-Edouard Vlasic and not nearly as much power play time.
The blueliner’s five-on-five goal, assist, primary assist, and point rates are unsurprisingly all the best of his career, but his underlying numbers are solid, too. He is generating five-on-five shot attempts (10.39 per hour) and shots on goal (4.66 per hour) at a higher rate than all but his first two NHL seasons, while also attempting shots that result in rebounds (0.7 per hour) at a higher rate than all but two Sharks defenseman: Brent Burns and Dylan DeMelo.
Braun’s been a key component of a surprisingly offensive defense corps. The Sharks are tied for second in the league with three defensemen that have scored 30-plus points. It’s only the second time San Jose’s had that many in franchise history, and the first time in nearly a decade (2008-09; four).
Braun, as well as Donskoi and Labanc, played key roles offensively in Thursday’s pivotal win. That couldn’t have necessarily been expected at the start of the season, but has simply become the norm by now.