SAN JOSE, Calif. -- This sport has a rich history of gutsy performances at playoff time, of players forging their reputations by paying whatever price is necessary to win.
The playoffs tell you a lot about the character of a player.
This night belonged to Logan Couture and won’t soon be forgotten in these parts.
The 24-year-old San Jose Sharks center appeared done for the night after his left leg buckled into the boards early in the second period Saturday. The team even communicated to media that his return was questionable.
Having already lost Martin Havlat after the first period (the Czech winger appearing to have reaggravated whatever kept him out five games prior), the Sharks were down to 10 forwards and trying their best to fight off the reigning Stanley Cup champions with San Jose’s season essentially on the line, already down 2-0 in the series.
And then out of the Sharks' dressing room appeared Couture late in the second period, taking a whirl on the ice during a stoppage in play and deciding he was ready to give it a go. The crowd at HP Pavilion was going bananas at the sight of No. 39.
He didn’t just return. He was dominant.
Just more than a period later, his power-play goal 1:29 into overtime lifted the Sharks to a crucial 2-1 victory.
"In my opinion, he’s probably the leader of this team," said veteran Sharks blueliner Brad Stuart, not one for hyperbole. "Throughout the season, he’s kind of taken that role, I think, especially on the ice. So to have him come back was huge. It’s just a boost to the guys mentally, if nothing else."
"That guy will fight through anything," defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic added.
Couture didn’t talk to reporters after the game, instead heading straight to the trainers’ room for more work.
But his teammates were more than willing to expound on a gutsy playoff performance by the future captain of the Sharks.
"Guys get banged up in the playoffs, and he’s our guy," veteran defenseman Dan Boyle said. "I’ve said it before, he’s a tremendous player. He came back and did what he could. I mean, that shot in overtime, that was a hell of a shot."
The current captain, Joe Thornton, had another terrific night himself, as he has throughout these three games against the Kings. His line with Brent Burns and T.J. Galiardi stepped it up a notch in the second period when the Sharks fell to 10 forwards.
And really, all the big guys were clutch on this night. Thornton, Patrick Marleau (two assists), Joe Pavelski, Vlasic, Stuart, Boyle and goalie Antti Niemi -- all with clutch performances as the Sharks got a victory they had to have.
This is a franchise whose character come springtime has been constantly questioned over the years.
People wondered how the Sharks would respond after losing Game 2 in Los Angeles in such dramatic fashion.
They got their response on this night, the Sharks outshooting the Kings 40-27, battling through injury and deserving of victory.
"We bounced back," Vlasic said. "We responded well tonight. We stayed positive after Game 2 and we know we’d respond."
This series did not deserve to go to 3-0. The Sharks have been in this thing step for step with the Cup champs.
"We feel we’ve been the better team in this series so far, but that doesn’t win you hockey games," Boyle said. "You have to win it on the scoreboard. Tonight we did both."
Not without controversy.
For a second game in a row, a pair of late-game penalties drastically affected the outcome of the game.
In Game 2, the Kings scored two power-play goals late to tie and win the game, infuriating the Sharks.
On Saturday night, a hooking call to Robyn Regehr at 19:18 of the third period and a goalie interference penalty to Trevor Lewis at 19:55 put the Sharks on a power play that would convert in overtime.
"I didn't think it was a penalty," Lewis said of his call. "It is what it is. Can't change it now. We've got to focus on the next game."
Last game, it was the Sharks foaming at the mouth for the late-game penalties. On Saturday night, the Kings couldn’t believe the call on Lewis.
"I find it very tough to believe, with a player as intelligent as Trevor Lewis, that he'd run the goalie," Kings winger Dustin Penner said. "I asked him, and he said he got pushed from behind. I believe him and I'm disappointed that the refs had enough confidence to make a gutsy call like that in the last, whatever, 30 seconds of a period. It's pretty impressive when they have enough gall to guess."
When you think of it, Game 2 and Game 3 were nearly mirror images of each other on many levels, including Kings star Anze Kopitar leaving Game 2 for a few shifts but coming back after getting stitches on his upper lip.
"It’s an interesting thing, we just saw that happen in Los Angeles the other night with one of their key people coming back in Kopitar," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "It gave their team a lift, I thought. When Couch [Couture] came back, I thought it gave our team a lift as well. The locker room was real positive when he was ready to go. It’s kind of ironic how the series mirrors each other one game to another."
The series now takes two days off, which both these beat-up teams can use.
Kings winger Justin Williams left the game before returning as well. He was banged up late in Game 2, and it certainly didn’t help Saturday night when Stuart rocked him with a clean, thunderous check along the boards that reminded you of something Niklas Kronwall would do. Which only makes sense since Stuart and Kronwall were defense partners in Detroit for many years.
"I learned from the master," Stuart said, smiling. "It’s a play I’ve seen him do quite a few times: The forward looks up, thinks he’s got time and then you make your move. He didn’t see me coming I don’t think until it was probably too late."
A big hit in a big game, one the Sharks had to have.
Hey, East Coasters, don’t sleep on this one.
This series is building up to be a doozy.