Joonas Donskoi had scored eight game-winning goals at SAP Center before Sunday, including the overtime winner in the Sharks' first-ever Stanley Cup Final victory in 2016.
He scored his ninth wearing a color other than teal Sunday, clinching the Colorado Avalanche's 4-3 win over the Sharks in his first visit to San Jose since signing a four-year contract with the Avs on the first day of free agency. Donskoi also received a video tribute and an ovation during the first period.
"It was weird," Donskoi told reporters in the visiting locker room after the game. "First time in my career playing against an old team. I never had that experience before, so [there] was for sure some extra nervousness, I'd say. A lot of familiar faces against us on the ice tonight, so it was a new experience for me."
Donskoi's goal was his 16th of the season, adding to his career-high. It was his 33rd point of the campaign, leaving him five points away from his personal best.
Though Sunday's goal ended a two-month drought -- the kind that frustrated former Sharks coach Peter DeBoer during Donskoi's four seasons in San Jose -- the Sharks have missed the Finnish forward this season. They've lacked scoring depth after the departures of Donskoi, Joe Pavelski and Gustav Nyquist last summer. The Associated Press' Josh Dubow noted just how stark the depth drop-off has been.
Brent Burns and Timo Meier lead the #SJSharks with 45 points thru 68 games. At this point last season, the Sharks had 8 players with more than 45 points— Josh Dubow (@JoshDubowAP) March 8, 2020
Add a host of injuries upfront into the mix, and the Sharks have tried rotating young players in and out of the lineup to find the right mix. That rotation continued Sunday, as interim coach Bob Boughner dressed rookies Noah Gregor and Lean Bergmann. Gregor didn't play in Saturday's loss to the Ottawa Senators, and Bergmann hadn't dressed since San Jose's win over the Pittsburgh Penguins eight days ago. Bergmann impressed Boughner with his physicality, and Gregor scored his first career power-play goal to cut the Avalanche lead to one with 44 seconds remaining.
The Sharks struggled to create much offense on the second night of a back-to-back, but San Jose's rookies accounted for a good chunk of its chances. Gregor and fellow rookie Joel Kellman each were on the ice for more 5-on-5 high-danger chances (three) than all but two other Sharks, according to Natural Stat Trick, while Gregor was third on the team with three scoring chances in all situations despite playing just under 15 minutes.
"For four games in six nights, I thought we played hard," Boughner told reporters at SAP Center. "We had guys playing out of spots (after captain Logan Couture entered the concussion protocol), up higher in the lineup, more minutes than they're used to, young guys in situations that we had no choice (but) to play them in. I thought that the guys competed really hard. I thought we were physical. ... I think we produced enough, but they're an opportunistic team, and I think that they've got some world-class players and [that] was the difference tonight."
Players like Gregor, who now has four points in his last five games, must continue to develop offensively if the Sharks are going to return to the playoffs next season. San Jose entered the season hoping its prospects could fill the void left by Donskoi and others this offseason, and that need is no less pressing heading into a long summer.
Donskoi's Avalanche, meanwhile, are just two points back of the defending champion Stanley Cup St. Louis Blues for the top seed in the Western Conference. There will be plenty of fans pulling for him in San Jose, too, as seen by his reception Sunday.
"It was fun to see there was still a lot of my signs from the fans," Donskoi said. " ... It was a special night."