The San Jose Sharks sure missed Joonas Donskoi, didn't they?
In his first game in 16 days, the Finnish winger made his presence felt during the Sharks' 3-2 win over Calgary on Thursday. He assisted on San Jose's first goal, and scored the game-winner, all in a tidy 13:42 in ice time, the fourth-fewest among Sharks forwards.
San Jose did well enough in Donskoi's absence. They went 3-2-1 and picked up seven points, buoyed by an explosion on the power play (six goals in six games) covering up for a lack of five-on-five scoring (nine goals).
That trend reversed on Thursday, as the Sharks scored once on the power play and twice at even strength. Donskoi factored into both.
His back-checking ensured San Jose got a clean zone entry, and eventually, a clean look at the goal when Timo Meier buried the rebound off of Chris Tierney's shot. The game-winner was fortunate, yes, but once again a result of his hockey sense: Donskoi pulled up on Justin Braun's cross-ice pass at the last second, allowing Thornton to shoot as he drove the net for a rebound.
Two intelligent plays. Two goals. And ultimately, a Sharks win.
His return benefitted San Jose on the scoresheet, but also aided the team on the lineup card. His presence allows the team to utilize players in proper roles, even when they aren't completely healthy.
The Sharks are still without Mikkel Boedker, and Melker Karlsson likely isn't the right fit alongside Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton, but the forward lines on Thursday were close to ideal otherwise. Joel Ward and Jannik Hansen, both pressed into third-line duty at times in Donskoi's absence, comprised two-thirds of a strong fourth line.
Peter DeBoer will still need to tweak, as Ward, Hansen, and Marcus Sorensen were the only Sharks able to control a majority of the five-on-five shot attempts. The loss of possession, though, reveals another factor Donskoi brings to the lineup.
It can only get you so far, and certainly can't solely be relied upon over long stretches. But sometimes, on a given night when the rest of the team isn't at their best, that talent is enough to eke out a win.
Brent Burns, Logan Couture, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Martin Jones at his best can all be relied upon to carry the Sharks at times. So, too, can Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, but recovery and injury, respectively, have hampered their effectiveness at times this season.
Donskoi is another player who fits that mold, and makes San Jose's offense far more difficult for opponents to handle. He may not be their most valuable player this season, but he's arguably the most important.