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Inside the Cage: Back On Track

After last season's down year, Joonas Donskoi is feeling confident again

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon / sjsharks.com

One game at a time, little by little - a juke here, a poke check there - Joonas Donskoi is starting to resemble the rookie who burst on the scene two years ago.

Twenty-three years old at the time, the native of Raahe, Finland validated the Sharks' decision to take a chance on a free agent who was originally drafted by Florida in 2010, but never pursued a pro career with the Panthers.

Donskoi produced 11 goals and 36 points in 76 regular-season in 2015-16, and made an impressive impact in San Jose's long run to the Stanley Cup Final by punching home another six goals and 12 points in the 24 postseason contests. He was responsible, too, for probably the single greatest highlight at SAP Center when he scored the game-ending overtime goal in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final against Pittsburgh 12:18 into sudden death. 

Even though the Sharks ultimately came up short against the Penguins, the team could hardly wait to see what Donskoi had in store for an encore last season. As it turned out, Donskoi couldn't wait for last season to end.

First there was his slow start. Then there was a separated shoulder injury. Then he separated his shoulder again. And he had foot ailments. In all, Donskoi's patchwork season included scoring only six goals and 17 points in 61 games. He got into five of San Jose's six first-round playoff games against Edmonton, but didn't manage a goal and was a minus-3.

"Last season I don't really think about it anymore," Donskoi said. "That was bad.

"But I feel good now. It was a huge summer for me. I got back healthy, and I feel I'm in good shape. I can skate again. I'm just trying to earn the trust back. I want to keep it simple, not get too fancy."

Video: Joonas Donskoi is mic'd up against the Predators

And that has been the key. Donskoi looks like his feisty, energy-filled old self. That long stick he uses is giving opponents fits again. His versatility allows coach Peter DeBoer to move him up and down the lineup where he sees fit. Against Anaheim on Saturday night, Donskoi was promoted alongside top offensive threats Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, and the Sharks rallied for a 2-1 win in the shootout where Donskoi left his biggest mark.

"I thought Donskoi helped Thornton and Pavelski," DeBoer said. "He gave their line a little shot of energy when he jumped in there. We were playing well, but we didn't have a lot going on. Sometimes you shuffle the deck."

Donskoi provided the deciding goal in the shootout. With plenty of tricks in his bag to choose from, he went with the multiple in-tight forehand-to-backhand move that froze Anaheim goalie Ryan Miller to the right post while Donskoi easily tapped the puck across the goal line into the half-open net.

Seems Sharks goalie Martin Jones has been fooled by that move in practice, too. After all, Donskoi is somewhat of a shootout specialist. Besides those sick moves he has on display on YouTube, Donskoi ranks fourth in shootout scoring percentage (42.9 percent) among teammates who have converted at least three shootout goals.

"He does that to me all the time, so I'm not surprised," Jones said with a smile.

Donskoi doesn't score, let alone even try that move if he isn't feeling good about himself. And DeBoer doesn't have him even attempt a shot in the shootout if he isn't seeing something again in Donskoi.

"He's playing with confidence," DeBoer said. "He looks like the player we had here two years ago, which is a good sign because we need that."

Video: ANA@SJS: Donskoi dangles for sweet shootout goal

Donskoi's overall game will be judged far beyond what he produces on the score sheet, but it's important to note what he's done there lately. Donskoi has a nice little pattern of goal-scoring going right now. He has scored one goal in every other outing over a span of eight games dating back to notching his first of the season in New Jersey on Oct. 20 during a 3-0 trip-opening win. Donskoi needs to find the back of the net against the Lightning on Wednesday to keep the streak in tact.

Again, though, his four goals and seven points in 13 games aside, Donskoi is doing all the things on the ice that the Sharks are looking for from him. And it's all happening again because Donskoi has rediscovered his confidence. 

"I think the confidence comes from my skating, that's a huge part of my game," he said. "If I skate well, I get confidence and I can make plays, forecheck hard and stuff like that. It all starts when I'm moving my feet."

Donskoi isn't getting carried away with his early-season consistency. He knows he has to continue to bring that same responsible game night-in and night-out, and that's exactly what he's working to bring.

"I'm feeling better every day," Donskoi said. "All I can do is do my best when I get on the ice and concentrate on that."

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