SAN JOSE -– At 37 years old, no one expected Dainius Zubrus to come in and score a couple dozen goals when he signed a cheap one-year deal with the Sharks on Nov. 24 after a brief tryout. Zubrus was expected to play a responsible two-way game, while adding some size to the Sharks’ bottom six forward group, and that’s what he’s done.
But coach Pete DeBoer hit up Zubrus, whom he had in New Jersey, for another reason, too.
Some of the Sharks’ young prospects, still attempting to become everyday players, needed someone other than the top end stars with an abundance of natural talent to set an example on how hard it is not just to get to the National Hockey League, but to stay there.
One player that’s benefited from Zubrus being around is Chris Tierney, whose eyes lit up when asked about the 19-year-veteran and the effect he’s had on him this season – starting with off the ice.
“He’s in the gym all the time, and I think he’s gotten me in there a little bit more during the season,” Tierney said. “I think in the past I probably wasn’t in the gym or skating after practice as much as I should have been. He’s a guy that’s really taught me that. Kept me going throughout the season, throughout this long haul.
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“It’s funny that an older guy like him, you expect him to be resting more, but he might be one of the hardest working guys on the team. It’s nice to have that veteran guy to help push me along and let me know. [If] I don’t want to work out after a Game 7, he’s there to help me push.”
Zubrus indicated, too, that the pair has formed a bond.
“We’ve talked about on and off the ice. We’ve spent some time together in the gym, too. … He’s learning the game, and I think he’s getting better, honestly, every game. I think everybody has seen his progress. He’s doing well now, and we’ll need him to be even better going ahead.”
Tierney is playing the best hockey of his brief career headed into the Stanley Cup Final, with five goals and two assists for seven points, all at even strength, and a plus-five rating in the playoffs. His ability to play against some of the better players on Los Angeles, Nashville and St. Louis means DeBoer can continue to roll four lines.
In fact, when DeBoer moved Patrick Marleau up to the Couture line in the Nashville series, he pinpointed Tierney’s development as the primary reason he was able to do it. Tierney has arguably been more effective in that spot than Marleau was, anyway.
Joel Ward, playing on Tierney’s right wing lately, has been impressed.
“He’s a good skater, good puck-handler. … We’re making some plays,” Ward said. “Tierns is able to create, and I think a lot of people don’t see that as much.”
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Still, the biggest challenge is yet to come against Pittsburgh. The strength of the Penguins is their deep offensive attack, and their best line in the playoffs – Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin – could pose some problems for the Sharks and their ability to match up. Star centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are also on different lines, further complicating matters.
In that sense, Tierney will be in the spotlight, and he’s up for the challenge.
“I think playing against elite players you want to bring your game up another level,” he said. “You want to show you can play against these guys, and show you can go head-to-head against them. I think that’s a lot of fun. I take a lot of pride in that.”
Zubrus said: “He’s playing real well, honestly. He’s playing really well. We’ll need that from everybody as we go ahead.”