Logan Couture values playoff success after life-threatening injury

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PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 09: Logan Couture #39 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates after scoring a goal against Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the first period in Game Five of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Consol Energy Center on June 9, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

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PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 09: Logan Couture #39 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates after scoring a goal against Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the first period in Game Five of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Consol Energy Center on June 9, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

SAN JOSE, Calif. – When Logan Couture walked into CONSOL Energy Center for Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, thousands of Penguins fans had already amassed out front to watch the game, waiting to turn downtown Pittsburgh into New Year’s Eve if their team defeated the San Jose Sharks

Was there any part of him, then, that enjoyed ruining that party when the Sharks skated out with a 4-2 victory on Thursday night, shoving the series back to California for Game 6?

“Yeah.”

Was that something that was in the Sharks’ room before the game?

“No.”

But maybe in his head before the game?

“Yeah,” he said, with a smirk.

Couture had three points in that game, just as he had three points when the Sharks eliminated the St. Louis Blues in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final, just as he had three points when the Sharks eliminated the Nashville Predators in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinal, and just as he had three points in Game 5 of the opening round of the playoffs when the Sharks eliminated the Los Angeles Kings.

If the series is on the line in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Logan Couture is having a big night. Heck, he even scored a goal in their Game 6 loss to the Predators that extended the series.

“I don’t know. I just don’t want to go home. Don’t want the season to end. I wish I did it every game,” said Couture.

The stats show he’s done it in most games. Of the Sharks’ 23 playoff games this postseason, Couture hasn’t tallied a point in only six of them. He leads the NHL with 29 points in 23 postseason games. Two more victories – to complete what would be a miraculous rally, given the odds – and there’s every chance he would be the Conn Smythe winner.

“Best part of the year. The best sport to watch. The best sport to be a part of. You appreciate how tough it is to win on a nightly basis,” said Couture. “You get to the bench, take a drink of water and you’re right back out. You don’t really have a second to breathe.”

But when Couture has had time to catch his breath, rest on an off-day, contemplate the moment, his thoughts have drifted back to earlier this season. To a time when hockey was the last thing on his mind, well behind losing his leg. Or his life.

***

Couture actually began the season with an injury.

On Oct. 16, with the Sharks out to a 3-0-0 start, Couture fractured his right fibula at the ankle during practice. He returned on Dec. 8, played two games and then suffered a much more horrific injury.

It was a Dec. 9 game against the Edmonton Oilers. He left at 12:52 of the second period, suffering what was assumed to be a Charley horse on a hit. He got on the team flight after the 4-3 loss, and noticed something was very wrong.

His leg was inflating.

“Interior bleeding in my leg. In my quad, from an artery that had split open somehow from taking a hit. Flew back home. My leg started swelling, getting bigger and bigger. So they had to stop the bleeding somehow, and they were able to do that before my leg just kept filling with blood,” he said.

Ask anyone, and Couture is a guy who plays the game with reckless abandon. Goes to the corners. Blocks shots. Grinds it out.

But in that moment, he was scared.

“It could have happened to the point where … you don’t know if you’re going to lose your leg, or die,” he said.

When the flight landed, Couture needed to be taken off the plane in a wheelchair, piloted by his former teammate Alex Stalock. He went to the hospital, and at first his fears weren’t eased. 

“The MRI came out and there were 8-to-10 doctors staring at it so I knew something was pretty seriously wrong,” he said.

Couture said he couldn’t be at ease until after the surgery. “The doctor assured me everything was going to be OK, but you never know.”

If it wasn’t a life-altering moment for Couture, it was at least a life refocusing one. “You realize it’s just a sport. There are other things you have to worry about than hockey,” he said.

Couture returned to the ice on Jan. 2. And then it was time to worry about hockey again.

***

Dainius Zubrus has played 1,293 NHL games with six different franchises, but is stumped when asked which former teammate has a game like that of Logan Couture.

So instead of whom Couture is like, he tells us who Couture is.

“It’s the last minute of the game. You’re looking for a goal. Or you’re defending your own goal. He’s on the ice. He’s that guy,” said Zubrus.

(Photo by David E. Klutho /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
(Photo by David E. Klutho /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

Couture takes pride in the defensive side of his game.

“Big part of my game. Big part since I turned pro. I love it. I take pride in trying to shut down the other team’s players. I like blocking shots. I don’t why, because it’s not much fun, but I like it,” he said.

“I was lucky enough to play my junior hockey career with a good coach. Brian Kilrea was always about being a good two-way player. The biggest thing he taught me is that if you’re playing well in your own end, it leads to offensive chances. As a hockey player you don’t really don’t think that when you’re playing out there. You think offensive a lot.”

What impresses Zubrus about Couture is the Sharks forward’s hockey sense.

“It’s his sense of when to make plays, and when the room is there. Not to force it, but it’s almost the other way around: When there’s not much space, he doesn’t panic. When there’s a 3-on-2, he just takes what’s there. He doesn’t try to do something that’s not there. He’s got a good hockey sense, great awareness of his surroundings, where people are,” said Zubrus.

Joel Ward, who has played with Couture on and off this season, is impressed with his focus.

“Very talented guy, but his mindset too knowing that he wants to be the best out there and he wants to just contribute and help the team win games. He wears his emotions on his sleeve a lot, goes out there and plays hard a lot, but he’s good in a lot of areas. He’s good defensively, he wins draws, he’s good offensively, but he plays a solid 200-foot game,” he said.

Melker Karlsson, Couture’s linemate, is impressed with his tenacity and the intensity with which he plays on every shift. “If he does it, I have to do it too. I can’t stand and watch,” he said. “He’s been one of the leaders on our team.”

Leadership is an interesting concept when it comes to the San Jose Sharks. The team has two former long-serving captains in the locker room in Patrick Marleau (2004-09) and Joe Thornton (2010-14), both of whom lost the ‘C’ due to the Sharks’ lack of playoff success.

Last season, the team went with a collection of alternate captains. This season, Joe Pavelski wears the ‘C’ and Couture and Thornton are both alternate captains.

“Those guys are still leaders on this team. I don’t think a letter has much to do with it. We got guys on our back end that have been around for a long time, have been leaders on this team, and they don’t have letters. I don’t think it means as much as people think it does,” Couture said.

There’s been a notion that Thornton’s demotion from captain has been a rallying point, as is the idea that this is his best shot at winning the Stanley Cup. 

“I think we want to win it for every guy in this room. There’s a lot of guys that have played a lot of hockey games,” said Couture.

'Playing For Joe' or not, Thornton remains one of the team’s most vocal leaders, along with Brent Burns and Pavelski.

Couture, meanwhile, is less vocal. “I’m not the kind of guy that yells and screams."

That isn’t to say he’s not outspoken.

***

Along with his point total, Couture’s biggest impact on the Stanley Cup Final was when he accused Sidney Crosby of cheating on faceoffs and, in turn, getting the benefit of linesmen’s calls because he’s Sidney Crosby. He clarified the statement by saying that everyone cheats on faceoffs – including Couture.

To say that Couture lacks a filter would be to assume he’s ever had one. Like when the Sharks eliminated the Los Angeles Kings, and Couture took a verbal victory lap.

“Throughout the last couple of years, things have been said by players on that team that to me I take it as disrespectful. It’s nice to stick it back to them and beat them in this series,” Couture said after Game 5. “Even in this series someone said on the team they had us right where they wanted us. Wonder if they have us where they want us right now.”

That someone was Drew Doughty, a friend of Couture’s and someone the Shark spends time with in the offseason. After hearing of Couture’s comments, he said: “To be honest everyone talks about this ‘buddy’ thing but we really aren’t that close. We really aren’t. We basically work out at the same gym and that’s about it,” he said.

Said Couture on Saturday, when asked about Doughty: “We don’t really talk during the season, anyway. It is what it is.”

He said he’s never been told by the Sharks, management or teammates, to watch what he says. “I’m not going to sit here and lie to you guys. You ask me a question, I’ll answer it honestly,” said Couture. “People say things all the time about you. As a hockey player. As a person. You can’t let it bother you.”

It’s something his parents taught him, and something he’s carried through life: Be himself.

Be the guy in the locker room that annoys his teammates by foisting his love of the Toronto Blue Jays on them, especially Chicago Cubs-loving Tommy Wingels. “A lot of them are fans. I think they’re either Jays fans, not baseball fans or Tommy,” said Couture.

Be the guy who maybe says a little too much to the media sometimes.

Be the guy who’ll admit being frightened by an injury.

Be the guy who plays with his heart on his sleeve in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, leading by example in its most important games.

Like Zubrus said: He’s not really anyone else. He’s that guy.

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Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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