SAN JOSE –- It had been more than two months since the Sharks’ second power-play unit had scored a goal, but coach Todd McLellan sent them out to start a late second period advantage in a scoreless game on Thursday against Nashville anyway.
It took that group –- the Sharks’ third line of Chris Tierney, Tommy Wingels and Tomas Hertl, and top defense pair of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun –- just 13 seconds to reward its coach with the surprising opportunity, giving San Jose the only goal it would need in an important 2-0 win.
Tierney won the draw, Braun got a point shot through to Pekka Rinne, and Hertl was there to slide in the rebound at 16:41 of the middle frame.
“We want to do anything we can to get out there and create momentum or try to score goals,” Tierney said. “We really relish the opportunity and try to do our best with it.”
The Sharks’ top power-play unit, the primary reason that San Jose entered with the NHL’s fifth-ranked power play, was having an off night through the first three power plays. An earlier opportunity in the second period was particularly unproductive.
Enter the second unit, which hadn’t found the net since a Melker Karlsson marker on Jan. 10. Along with Hertl's goal, it added another one late with less than a minute to go in regulation, courtesy of Wingels into an empty net. Nashville's Mattias Ekholm was in the penalty box for both.
“Our first group, if you want to call it that, has been so strong all year but they really struggled tonight,” McLellan said. “It was an opportunity for that other line to get out there, and they got us the goal. Happened to get the empty-netter on the power play as well, so it's a nice reward for those three and the D that are out there with them."
Joe Pavelski, second in the NHL with 17 power-play goals, said: “The power play wasn’t what we needed to do the first three times. We kept working and got another chance. They went out and really established the momentum for us. It was a big turning point in the game.”
At even strength, the latest iteration of the Sharks’ third line was the team’s most effective trio of the night, according to McLellan. San Jose has been in desperate need of more depth scoring, and the Sharks have utilized no fewer than 22 combinations for their third line since opening night.
Perhaps this latest mixture can remain together for the final 14 games.
“I feel very good now. Good chemistry now with Tommy and Tierns,” said Hertl, who scored his third goal in the last 24 games. “We feel very, very good the last couple of games.”
Tierney has four points in his last four games, assisting on both goals against the Predators. Since returning from Worcester before a game on Feb. 4 he has nine points in 14 games, and looks like a different player than the one who made the opening night roster until he was reassigned in early November.
What precipitated his newfound effectiveness?
"In my opinion, it's  games in the [AHL],” McLellan said. “Strength, confidence, feeling good about his game, playing in those situations. … He's a different player than he was the first 10 games of the season."
In goal, Antti Niemi is also playing perhaps his best hockey of the season. He followed up his impressive 39-save performance against Pittsburgh on Monday with a 35-save shutout of Nashville.
Pavelski said: “He gives us a lot of confidence when he’s playing like that.”
“He looks very confident, and the team feels good with him in there right now,” McLellan said.
The Sharks do seem to be gaining confidence as a team post-trade deadline, as they fight to get back into playoff position. Despite winning four of their last five, though, they remain three points behind Los Angeles and Calgary, each of which have a game in hand.
They’ll have to pass at least one of those teams to qualify for their 11th straight postseason.
"You've got a little momentum, but you just got to bring it every night at this point,” Braun said. “You can't think about the last game. You've just got to think about the next one going forward, and get those two points."