SAN JOSE — When Kings defenseman Drew Doughty had his day with the Stanley Cup last summer, he held a party in his hometown of London, Canada, and encouraged guests to pose for photos with the gleaming trophy. Logan Couture, Doughty's childhood pal and now a rival as a center for the San Jose Sharks, stayed behind the camera, deliberately beyond reach of the revered prize.
Couture was happy for Doughty, a onetime teammate and friend since they were preteens, but his belief in one of hockey's basic tenets was even stronger. Since he hadn't won the Cup himself, Couture felt he hadn't earned the right to touch it, let alone be photographed embracing it.
"The rest of my family did, but I stayed away," Couture said. "I took the picture for them, but I didn't go anywhere near it."
Pursuit of a second title for Doughty and first-time Cup-hugging rights for Couture has put them on opposite sides of their Western Conference semifinal playoff series. Doughty, a Norris Trophy finalist and Olympic gold medalist before he won the Cup, has long been a star on the big stage. Couture is only now making his mark on a grand scale, becoming a leader on a team that never lacked talent but always had a hole where its grit and guts should be.
"I think this is his coming-out party," Sharks Coach Todd McLellan said Sunday. "Nationally, people are starting to talk about him. But we've known Logan like this for a long time."
The 24-year-old was well-regarded before his overtime goal Saturday gave the Sharks a 2-1 victory and cut the Kings' series lead to two games to one approaching Game 4 on Tuesday in San Jose. His skills were obvious: He scored 32 goals in the 2010-11 season, 31 goals in 2011-12, and 21 in this lockout-shortened regular season, which projects to 36 over a full schedule.
Beyond that, he's changing the Sharks' identity with his passion and persistence. Couture can be the bridge between the Joe Thornton-Patrick Marleau-Dan Boyle generation that endured so many postseason disappointments, and a time when the Sharks' accomplishments finally match their potential.
"As time goes on, organizations evolve. Good ones do," McLellan said. "They have a torch that is shared, or is held by one, then it's shared, then it's passed on. We hope we're doing that in this organization."
Couture is ready to accept that torch. He's not prone to making loud statements — he credits his parents with teaching him to avoid emotional highs and lows — but quiet leaders can set strong examples, as he did all season and again on Saturday.
Couture missed most of the second period after hurting his left ankle, apparently when he stepped on the puck. The Sharks' training room could have used a revolving door by then, with Martin Havlat suffering a lower-body injury that will keep him out of Game 4 and defenseman Scott Hannan also requiring attention.
"We were down to 10 forwards. I was doing whatever I could to get back out there as quick as I could," Couture said.
He never doubted that he would return.
"It's playoffs. In the four years I've been here, I've seen guys play through a lot of injuries," he said, recalling that Thornton needed help pulling on a jersey two years ago because of a shoulder problem.
"The Stanley Cup is what you're playing for. Whatever it takes."
The Kings had two players in the penalty box as overtime began but soon got one back. That still left room for Thornton and Marleau to find Couture in the slot and for him to lift a shot over Jonathan Quick's glove.
Couture insisted he did nothing special to ignite his teammates.
"It's been that way all year with these guys. We're a hungry team in here. We've been through a lot as a group of guys," he said.
"A lot has been said about this team's character throughout the years. I don't think it's fair, what's said outside of this room. But we believe in here. We always have. We always will believe that we can come back and win any game."
His belief is shared by a cheering section back home — the friends he and Doughty remain close to even after their NHL success and Doughty's Cup title.
"This year, after Drew won his, I think they're secretly pulling for me," Couture said. "They're telling me that."
He paused, then offered a rare smile. "Maybe," he said, "they're telling him the same thing."