VANCOUVER – In the Sharks’ self-labeled year of transition, several of team’s younger players and prospects have had a difficult time with that transitioning.
Matt Nieto is at the top of the list. Although the 22-year-old winger has all the tools to become a regular NHL contributor at some point, the second-year player entered Tuesday’s game in Vancouver with a disappointing four goals. He’s gotten his looks, and the advanced stats suggest he’s played some effective possession minutes, but Nieto just hasn’t been able to finish despite playing regularly in a top six role.
That changed for at least one night on Tuesday in Vancouver. Nieto scored twice, including the most important goal of the night, and set up a first period marker as well, in recording his first three-point night of the season in a 6-2 Sharks win.
The key moment for the Sharks was when Nieto got open in the high slot, took a pass from Patrick Marleau, and fired the disc past Eddie Lack to give them a 4-2 lead after they were in danger of blowing an early 3-0 advantage.
“We needed momentum, and that shift that we had, even if we didn’t score, it was a good momentum shift,” Nieto said. “We had a couple of chances, and luckily I was able to put one in.”
Playing their second game in as many nights and fourth in the last six, the Sharks jumped all over goalie Jacob Markstrom, scoring three times in the first eight minutes. Vancouver seized the momentum after a goalie change, though, and the Canucks scored a pair of goals in the second period and were buzzing for more.
Nieto put a halt to that Vancouver energy with his goal, but Marleau made the play happen, stripping Daniel Sedin before spotting his linemate.
“I was able to get under [Sedin’s] stick there,” Marleau said. “I think it tripped him up a bit.”
Nieto wasn’t the only youngster to break out of a scoring slump.
Melker Karlsson’s fancy backhanded swipe of a loose puck in the first period was his first goal since the last time the Sharks were in Vancouver on Feb. 5, and same with Chris Tierney, who opened the scoring and now has two career NHL goals, both at Rogers Arena.
Now that the trade deadline has come and gone, each of those players and a few others will have produce regularly if the Sharks are to qualify for their 11th straight postseason.
“We know if we want to win we’re going to have to play key roles and chip in almost every game, one of us,” Tierney said. “I think we all know that. We’re excited to have this opportunity given to us, and we’ll make the most of it.”
Todd McLellan said: “It’s been a long time coming for some of them, not because of their effort, it just wasn’t going in. To see Nieto, Karlsson, those type of guys get back on track, Tierney contributing – when we have that kind of depth appearing, it makes us a dangerous team.”
As recently as a week ago, the Sharks were showing signs of coming apart. One mistake would occur and it would seem to snowball, resulting in bad shift after bad shift, and thus defeat after defeat.
That hasn’t happened in the last two nights in wins over Montreal and Vancouver, coming immediately after a team gathering on Sunday to “deal with some things,” in McLellan’s words.
Early indications – and it’s still way too soon to suggest that the Sharks have turned any sort of corner – are that whatever they had to deal with is behind them, at least for now.
“We met as a team, and we know everyone has to hold themselves accountable, and these last two games we’ve done that,” Nieto said. “We have to keep doing that, and every game is important.”