Ever since Tomas Hertl went down with a serious right knee injury in December, it’s been a challenge for the Sharks to replace the impressive rookie who managed to score 15 goals in his first 35 NHL games.
With the NHL’s trade deadline of March 5 fast approaching, there’s a distinct possibility that the club could be looking to acquire another winger that could fill that role on the left wing of Joe Thornton.
Or, maybe they already have that guy in rookie Matt Nieto.
After sitting out on Friday in Buffalo as a healthy scratch, Nieto returned to the lineup against the Devils on Sunday. He pumped in the game-winning goal in the third period while skating with Thornton and Joe Pavelski, as a badly slumping Brent Burns was demoted to the third line.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Stalock, Sharks escape with win]
“He played an excellent game,” Todd McLellan said of Nieto. “He seized the opportunity, played really well, was effective penalty killing, was very good on that line.”
Nieto said: “[The coaches] didn’t say anything, but I kind of know what I have to do when I play with those two. They are puck possession guys, so I have to go in on the forecheck and retrieve pucks to them. When I get them the puck, get open. Pavs made a great pass to me, and I was able to get it by.”
Burns coming off of the top line was the most notable change, but the switch that had the most impact was McLellan reuniting Tommy Wingels with Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau, in place of Marty Havlat. It was the first time that trio started a game together since late December.
Wingels’ aggressive play led to Couture’s goal to open the scoring and Marleau’s marker late in the third that sealed the win, the Sharks' second in three games after the Olympic break.
As for Burns, he ended up skating the second half of the game with Raffi Torres and James Sheppard, who has played well in two straight games since sitting out against Philadelphia on Thursday. Havlat, who seems to continually work his way down the lineup any time he’s given a real chance to produce, ended up on the fourth line.
Burns has now gone 18 straight games without a goal.
“For Burnzie, I thought he had a good game. But, it’s been a long time since he produced and scored on [the Thornton] line,” McLellan said. “Just like everybody else, we’ve got to hold him accountable. Brent will work his way back, but right now we like what we’re seeing from those three.”
The Sharks outscored their opposition in the third period for the first time since a 1-0 win over Winnipeg on Jan. 23. That was talked about when the game was knotted at 2-2 after two periods.
“We threw that out between periods, and they didn’t know. It’s a stat that not many players will follow,” McLellan said. “I think they were surprised and a little shocked at how long it had been. A lot of ties, a couple we didn’t win. It was a good night tonight.”
Nieto’s goal a little more than six minutes into the final stanza gave the Sharks the lead shortly after some impressive stops by Alex Stalock, and the third period went the Sharks’ way.
A four-game road trip starts at SAP Center on Tuesday against Carolina.
“We knew if we won the third period we were going to win the game, and it’s a great way to end the road trip,” Nieto said. “We’re excited to get back to California.”