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Sharks turn San Jose into Hockey Town USA

This suburb in search of a city morphed into Hockey Town USA the other night.

Teal and black dominated Santa Clara Street and all the way over to Billy Berk’s. Techno beats blew out the door at the Britannia Arms. It didn’t matter if you were at SAP Center to see the game. The main thing Saturday night was that the Sharks were still in it.

San Jose coach Peter DeBoer called the atmosphere in the hockey building that anchors the block “electric,” and it was never more plugged in than the moment the Sharks gained the lead for the first time in any game of the Stanley Cup Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Joonas Donskoi, the Fins fans’ favorite Finn, circled around the back of the Pittsburgh net and popped one past Penguins goaltender Matt Murray in overtime. The shot heard ’round the Silicon won the game 3-2 and shortened the Sharks’ series deficit to 2-1.

For 194 minutes and 53 seconds stretched across three games, the Sharks stayed close to and on occasion caught but had not surpassed the rabbits in gold and black. Had that remained the case after Game 3, the celebrants of Santa Clara Street wouldn’t have been quite so jovial.

DeBoer showered credit on the ones inside SAP for his favorable outcome in the first Stanley Cup Final game played in Northern California, for giving energy to his team that didn’t need it nearly as much as it needed Donskoi’s goal.

“I thought it was amazing,” the coach said of the crowd. “Standing back there, you could tell these people have been waiting a long time. I think the guys really wanted to play hard for them.”

Early on, DeBoer thought his players’ urge to please made them play “jittery.” Now that they’ve gotten over their anxiety, they can be loosey goosey when the series resumes Monday night on Santa Clara Street.

“We’ve got to find a way to get out in front going forward,” DeBoer said. “We’ve been playing from behind too often in the series.”

Donskoi’s game winner may have been the biggest goal in the 24 seasons of Sharkdom. It’s the second time this postseason he netted a contest’s game-winning goal. L.A. Kings fans remember the one that took them out, when he beat Drew Doughty down the left side, passed to the front and came around on the right to stick it in for the decisive shot of the series.

“It was a good time to get it in,” Donskoi said of Saturday night’s second gold strike.

Before the game, the Sharks set aside a moment for what the SAP Center announcer called “thoughtful reflection” on the previous day’s passing of Muhammad Ali. For everybody on the ice, and most of the fans, it was the first day any of them had been alive when Ali was not. They’d be wrong to think that the champ’s transcendent life did not touch theirs and their sport as well as many other aspects of American life – and some in Canada, too.

“He was such an icon,” Sharks right wing Joel Ward said after the game, standing in a SAP Center hallway with friends and family after a game he tied 2-2 with a third-period goal to set the stage for Donskoi, the pride of Raahe.

Ward is one of the only 20 or so blacks in the NHL. He grew up in Canada, a destination of the Underground Railroad.

Up there, equality has not been as much of a historical issue as elsewhere on the continent. Still, the meaning of Ali has not been lost on Ward, who has spent the last couple of days on a crash course to gain a greater sense of The Greatest and his role in the advancement of international racial understanding.

During the postgame news conference, Ward said basketball’s Paul Pierce has been a role model for him regarding the ability to “just visualize” playing his best.

Did he gain any similar inspiration Friday and Saturday, after digging into the life and times of the former heavyweight champion whose supreme athletic ability, courage to stand up for his convictions, love of people and dignity in face of a fatal disease made him a winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom?

“One hundred percent,” Ward said in the hallway interview.

“I mean I’ve always looked for different athletes – icons, African Americans – for inspiration. People who paved the way – Willie O’Ree (the NHL’s first black player, in 1958), Jackie Robinson, obviously. For people who paved the way for people like myself to be here.”

It’s been said that hockey is a game of beauty and brutality. The Sharks made it within touching distance of the Cup by being prettier than the Kings, Predators and Blues. This series, they’ve had to hit more to slow down the speedier Penguins. It appeared the Sharks caught up with them Saturday night.

If they do it again Monday night in Game 4, be careful out there on Santa Clara Street.

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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