PITTSBURGH -- The disappearances were notable. No Joe Pavelski. No Joe Thornton. No Logan Couture. No Brent Burns. The players who had led the San Jose Sharks through the first three rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, against the Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues, had mostly been missing in this, their greatest test. Those four players had a combined zero goals and six assists in the first four games of San Jose's first shot at the Stanley Cup Final.
It was not good enough.
And so, it made sense that the Sharks were in a 3-1 hole heading into Game 5 at Consol Energy Center on Thursday. It made sense that they were fighting for their season, hoping they could push the Pittsburgh Penguins back to San Jose for Game 6.
Then Burns scored. Then Couture scored. The big names were back, playing focused, determined hockey, having an impact. And though the Sharks spent far too much time in their own zone, forcing a big game on another big name (Martin Jones), they ultimately prevailed 4-2, getting goals from Burns, Couture, Melker Karlsson and Pavelski.
As Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said, "We needed some big-game performances from some guys."
And they got them.
Burns was plus-2, scored the first goal of the night and had three shots on goal among his seven attempts. Couture had a goal and two assists, including a beauty of a pass to Karlsson for the game-winner, and landed five of the Sharks' 22 shots on net. Pavelski scored into an empty net to seal the victory.
But it started with Burns.
"That was big," defenseman Paul Martin said. "He's one of our key guys. To get him going, to get him on the board early and he loosens up and he starts to play a different type of game, so that's big, I think, for the team."
And for Burns.
"He's just more aggressive," Martin said. "He's one of those guys that he just reads and reacts. That's the way that he plays the game. … A lot of it is how when things are going well, he finds a way to get it done, offensively or defensively."
The goal came 1:04 into the first period, 64 seconds into a game Penguins fans who lined the streets and squares around the arena figured would finish with a celebration. Burns completed a facsimile of the goal scored in overtime in Game 3 by Joonas Donskoi, taking a wide wraparound and slipping the puck between goalie Matt Murray and the net.
Couture added on at 2:53, building a two-goal lead with a stick-blade deflection on a point shot from Justin Braun for his ninth goal of the postseason and second point of the night.
But it wasn't his prettiest moment. That came on a backhand pass to Karlsson that resulted in the fifth goal of the first period, a wild-and-wacky start that ultimately yielded into a game with no more scoring until there was 1:20 remaining and Murray was on the bench.
With that primary assist, Couture had three points in the first period, becoming the fourth player in the NHL's expansion era (since 1967-1968) with three points in a single period with his team facing elimination in the Stanley Cup Final. His 29 points in the postseason lead all players.
"[Couture] doesn't have a beard. Just like me, we fly under the radar," defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic said. "But [Couture], he's so gifted offensively, but really gifted defensively as well. You can put him out there against the best players, he'll shut them down, score goals, block shots. He does everything for us."
It had weighed heavily on some of them, notably Pavelski, the Sharks captain, who came into the series a leading Conn Smythe Trophy contender with 13 goals in three rounds. His 14th might have been anticlimactic, coming with the goalie pulled, but it still was a goal and it punctuated the win.
He had contributed. His fellow big names had contributed. And there it was in black and white on the score sheet, the expected names finally listed in all capitals in the places they should have occupied from the start of this round. There was Burns. There was Couture. There, even, was Pavelski, about whom Vlasic said, "Maybe this will open the floodgates for Pavs."
There seemed a burden lifted after the game, even though the Sharks face another must-win game at SAP Center on Sunday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports), when they'll look to extend their season, the Stanley Cup Final, to Game 7. They had broken through, individually and as a team. That might mean more confidence going forward, Vlasic suggested. It might mean more points. They hope so.
"I want to try to produce every night," Couture said. "That's my goal when I come to the rink, try and help the team, try and score a goal. I'm sure if you ask [Pavelski], [Thornton], [Burns], [Patrick Marleau], everyone, Tommy Wingels, [Dainius Zubrus], they want to score, they want to help our team.
"We know that we haven't scored many goals, or any, in this series. It's one of the reasons why we [were] down 3-1. We wanted to come. We didn't want the season to end tonight."
by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer