Friday June 10th, 2016

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PITTSBURGH – When the 44th and final save hopped into the air like popcorn before softly settling into his glove, Martin Jones rested one arm on the crossbar as chaos fizzed around him. Less than four seconds remained in the San Jose Sharks’ 4-2 win, in which Jones stopped more pucks than any netminder in an elimination Stanley Cup Final scenario since the Vietnam War. And now emotions were boiling over, punches hurling, faces washing, grievances aired in the dying moments of this already decided Game 5. Then there was Jones, standing still.

“He doesn’t flinch,” defenseman Justin Braun said. “He doesn’t go after guys, he doesn’t lose his cool. He’s always tapping us on the pads, saying we did a good job, and usually he’s bailing us out.”

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Indeed, the Sharks’ miraculous survival effort Thursday night would’ve died an early death had Jones not crashed the party that raged up Washington Place, spilling past Epiphany Catholic Church and onto Centre Ave. As the golden towels waved and eardrums split, the entire city felt ready to burst at the seams, hoping to witness its first professional sports championship won on home soil since 1960. That is, until a mild-mannered, 26-year-old in his first season as a starter stopped more pucks than any goaltender in franchise playoff history, becoming the first in the expansion era with multiple 40-save victories in a single Cup Final.

“He was a dominant minor league hockey guy, a dominant Western League guy, dominant in the American League and now he’s proving his worth in the best league in the world,” defenseman Brenden Dillon said. “He’s been a rock for us from day one. These are big key moments, Game 5, possible elimination game, on the road, in that environment. It could’ve been pretty easy for us as a team, for him to roll over on one of those power plays or whatnot. But I think that never-quit attitude starts with him, and bleeds over into our defense and our forwards.”

By now, at least for the Sharks, these superlatives are old news. They were true when Jones allowed two total goals in his first four appearances with San Jose, a fresh arrival by trade from Boston via Los Angeles. “Then the big question was whether there was a competitive edge there with that composure,” coach Pete DeBoer said Thursday. “That's always the million-dollar question.” They applied during the second round, when Jones set the previous franchise mark with 37 stops in Game 2 against Nashville, and then during the Sharks’ overtime win over Pittsburgh in Game 3 at home.

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So where to begin in Game 5’s bombardment? The two goals Jones allowed came 45 seconds apart, first when Evgeni Malkin banked a power play shot off Braun’s skate at 3:09 into the first period. Then, Dillon’s failed clear attempt turned into Nick Bonino’s wrister atop the right faceoff circle, which zipped past Carl Hagelin’s leaping screen and clipped Jones’s left arm. The 2-0 lead San Jose had built on strikes from Brent Burns and Patrick Marleau was gone. But for as much as the Penguins stormed Jones’s doorstep, for all the bodies hurling into his grill and sticks whacking at his pads post-whistle, nothing else got by.

“I don't think any situation ever gets to him,” center Chris Tierney said. “You could probably have someone run him right over and he’d be fine.”

This almost happened on several occasions. Pittsburgh winger Patric Hornqvist was the main net-front pest, as he often is, and midway through the second period was even table-topped over a prone Jones by one San Jose teammate. Altogether Jones faced 19 high-danger scoring chances at even-strength, according to War On Iceas Globe and Mail writer James Mirtle noted, the Sharks never ceded more since that statistic became available 11 years ago.

Or, as Tierney put it, speaking to the tall task that now awaits San Jose in Game 6 at SAP Center this weekend, “You can’t give up that many shots. They had so many chances in tight or hit the post, or Joner had to make an unbelievable save. You want to limit that, but your goaltender’s going to steal one for you once in a while.”

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But he did. He knocked away Sidney Crosby’s slap shot for his 40th save, which unfolded on a nifty lob play that sprung Pittsburgh’s captain into open ice. He denied Hornqvist four separate times from within 15 feet. He survived two more power plays after Malkin’s first period goal, including one-timers from Chris Kunitz and Phil Kessel that struck iron. "They throw a lot of pucks to the net," Jones said later. "That's just kind of the way they play." In a locker room infused with equally outsized personalities (Burns, Joe Thornton) and stoic demeanors (Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture), somehow Jones manages to stand out for staying quiet.

“We’ve got the most outgoing guys, we’ve got the most laidback, quiet guys,” Dillon said. “We’ve got a little bit of everything. I think that’s what makes our group so unique. It doesn’t matter if you’re Brent Burns, or you’re the quiet, cool, calm, collected Martin Jones.”

As Dillon spoke, family and friends gathered in a makeshift waiting area to offer their congratulations before the team bus rolled out past midnight. Down the hall, the equipment carts were loaded up and the nameplates were coming down inside the locker room. The largest crowd in this building’s history left disappointed, though revelry may soon return if Pittsburgh keeps outshooting the Sharks by margins greater than two-to-one. Nonetheless, only one thing mattered in this moment: They were all headed back to San Jose, and thanks to Jones they were not returning alone. 

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