Chris Tierney has seen Bryan Lerg’s act before.
Speaking about the Worcester captain the day before the 29-year-old would make his long-awaited NHL debut, Tierney, who played with Lerg in the AHL earlier this year, said: “He might take an elbow to the face, or a high stick, but he’s back the next shift. Guys really respect him, and he’s earned this.”
Tierney didn’t exactly mention taking a dirty hit headfirst into the boards, but, close enough. Lerg was on the receiving end of a heavy body check from behind by Curtis Hamilton on his very first NHL shift two minutes into Thursday’s game at Rexall Place, but promptly shrugged it off.
He remained in, and was one of the Sharks’ most effective players in their 3-1 win over Edmonton, scoring the game-winning goal late in the third period on a game-high eight shots.
Who would have thought a meaningless game in the standings with the wretched Oilers would provide one of the most exciting moments of the season?
“Little things like that make it fun right now,” said Logan Couture, who skillfully set Lerg up for the deciding marker and spoke with reporters afterwards. “You see a guy that’s battled in the minors for a long time and never gotten the opportunity to play in the NHL, and he gets a shot tonight and he’s able to score. … It’s as good as it gets.”
“Scored the winning goal. Was all over the rink. It was really nice to see,” Todd McLellan said.
Lerg started the night on the fourth line with John Scott and Ben Smith, but took a late shift in place of Tomas Hertl on the Couture-Patrick Marleau line with time winding down in a 1-1 game.
Couture faked Oilers defenseman Keith Aulie out of his skates, and sent a pass through the slot to Lerg, who went short side high on goaltender Laurent Brossoit –- who made an impressive NHL debut of his own for Edmonton with 49 saves.
Lerg leapt into the glass behind the net in celebration, and cameras showed the Sharks bench as joyous as it’s been all season. Associate coach Larry Robinson grabbed McLellan, and the two vigorously shook hands with giant grins of their own.
Lerg told the Sharks broadcasters that he “blacked out for a little bit” when he saw the puck go in. He described the moment that will be etched in his memory forever.
“I just jumped in the rush there with Cooch, and I saw Cooch just give me a little eye there,” Lerg said. “I knew he was going to dish it over. I just tried to make sure I put it up top.”
Lerg is in his first season with Worcester. He suffered significant injuries to each of his knees the previous two seasons while playing with AHL Lake Erie, and played in 346 AHL games over seven seasons before finally clawing his way to the NHL.
On Thursday in Edmonton, it was worth it.
Couture said: “He’s waited a long time for this day. After he scored he said that on the bench. It was awesome.”
Lerg’s parents and younger brother were in attendance, and will travel to Los Angeles for the season finale, too.
“A lot of obstacles and hurdles I had to overcome. Just had to stick with it, stay positive. A lot of it is mental," said Lerg, who was also a perfect 4-for-4 in the faceoff circle in 11-and-a-half minutes of action. "It was a lot of fun tonight and I’m never going to forget it."
“It’s a lesson for a lot of us -– not only in hockey, but in life, just to persevere and follow your dreams,” McLellan said. “You’ll get there eventually, and he got there tonight.”