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Support players take step forward in Stanley Cup Finals

Associated Press
Justin Braun of the San Jose Sharks enters the ice before play against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 3 Saturday night.

San Jose, Calif. — This is a Stanley Cup Finals filled with stars who have won the Hart Trophy, Olympic gold medals and numerous other awards.

With players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, the final features some of the biggest names in hockey.

The one place where those players haven’t showed up so far is on the goal-scoring sheet. In a series that has featured three straight one-goal games all decided either in the final three minutes of regulation or overtime, some of the lesser-known players have delivered the goals.

“You look through these playoffs and third-line, fourth-line guys have stepped up for both teams and scored big goals,” Sharks center Logan Couture said Sunday. “It’s not necessarily that the big guns have scored the huge goals for both teams. You need that when you get to this point.”

Sharks rookie Joonas Donskoi was the latest to get on that list when he scored the overtime winner in San Jose’s 3-2 victory in Game 3 on Saturday night that cut Pittsburgh’s series lead to 2-1. Game 4 is tonight in San Jose.

Donskoi matched the overtime goal scored just one game earlier by Penguins rookie Conor Sheary. Before that, it had been 30 years since a rookie had scored in overtime in the final when Montreal’s Brian Skrudland did it in Game 2 against Calgary.

But Donskoi and Sheary are far from the only unusual suspects to score in the first three games. Sharks defenseman Justin Braun has two goals in the past two games, matching his total from the previous 40 contests.

“I’m happy I can finally chip in offensively,” Braun said. “A lot of other guys have done a lot of heavy lifting to get us here. I’m just trying to do my part.”

Pittsburgh defenseman Ben Lovejoy, who has 15 goals in 334 career regular season games, scored one of the Penguins’ goals in Game 3 and set up the other that was deflected in by Patric Hornqvist.

Nick Bonino got the Game 1 winner for Pittsburgh when the other goals were scored by rookies Sheary and Bryan Rust.

And after three games, players like Crosby, Malkin, Thornton, Pavelski, Kris Letang, Logan Couture and Brent Burns are all still looking for their first goals.

“You just try to worry about yourself and make sure you’re doing your job and as a team you’re doing the things necessary to give yourself a chance to win games,” Crosby said. “It’s tight. Like I keep seeing year after year, there’s a small margin of error. Just make sure you’re competing and give yourself a chance to create and ultimately produce.”

It hasn’t been like those players haven’t performed well. Crosby was dominant the first two games and set up a pair of goals that helped Pittsburgh take the 2-0 lead. But he got much less generated on the road when the Sharks were able to match top defensive pair Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Braun against him consistently. Even a few shifts with Malkin couldn’t generate many chances.