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Quick Bites: Sharks triumph over Jets in home opener

Momentum swings, rookies scoring and fights — what more could you want from the first game of the regular season?

Jasper Weatherby #26, William Eklund #72, Tomas Hertl #48 and Kevin Labanc #62 of the San Jose Sharks celebrate scoring a goal against the Winnipeg Jets at SAP Center on October 16, 2021 in San Jose, California. Photo by Amanda Cain/NHLI via Getty Images

The San Jose Sharks faced the Winnipeg Jets in their home opener at SAP Center, and neither the game nor the fans disappointed. The energy was absolutely electric from the ice level right up to the nosebleeds — and no wonder, because this game had everything.

Huge momentum swings, fights, rookies getting on the scoreboard, and, most importantly, two points for the Sharks heading into a five-game road trip. Two points won against the Winnipeg Jets no less, who are both faster and higher rated than the Sharks. How’s that for a season opener?

The less said about the first period, the better. The period began the way all Sharks games seem to do recently with a few big hits coming from the Sharks. Timo Meier on Neal Pionk, Jacob Middleton on Adam Lowry, and Kevin Labanc on Nate Schmidt all in the first minute of the period.

From then on, the Sharks struggled with puck possession and entering the zone, instead relying heavily on dump-ins whenever they could eke their way out of their own defensive zone. The Jets are a noticeably faster team than the Sharks, and it showed when they capitalized upon the Sharks’ fumbled passes. The Sharks were hesitating too long, making drop passes to no one, and not committing to plays.

They played back. Too far back, in fact, because at the 15:40 mark, Pierre-Luc Dubois backhanded a shot over Adin Hill from former Sharks defender Brenden Dillon and Neal Pionk.

The Sharks were giving the Jets too many rush chances, but even after that first goal, you could visibly see Hill settle into the net. He wasn’t rattled by the goal, and his confidence bled over into the team in front of him. By the end of the first, the Sharks were already starting to gain momentum, and it was just a matter of time before something went in.

The second began with Labanc and Pionk in the box, a holdover from their respective holding and high-sticking penalties at the end of the first. It wasn’t long before history repeated itself and the Jets scored early in the period, thanks to Andrew Copp, assisted by Lowry, making the score 2-0 in favor of the Jets. Again, the Sharks had given the Jets too much room in the neutral zone, and they were able to establish a rush chance that caught Hill off guard.

But even with the Jets up by two, Hill didn’t seem bothered. He resettled in his crease, and that was that.

Soon after the Jets’ goal, sweet baby rookie William Eklund took his first penalty of his NHL career at the 16:37 mark. He was called for tripping on Jansen Harkins, and sent the Jets to the power play.

As the Sharks’ special teams solidified into something approaching fearsome in this game, the Jets’ special teams slinked back into mediocrity. On a short-handed chance during the Jets power play, Andrew Cogliano scored on a wrist shot from Logan Couture and Brent Burns, putting the Sharks within one goal at the 16:22 mark.

It was a well-deserved goal from Cogliano, who had been working hard all game, providing defensive support and generating offensive energy. At that moment, it was like something clicked for the Sharks. All of a sudden, they began to confidently slice through the neutral zone and buzz around the net like they’d been doing that the whole game. Passes were connecting, and finally (finally!) their line chemistry was brewing. The Sharks were confident, and the Jets couldn’t handle the constant pressure.

The crowd (and the Sharks) only got wilder once Lowry boarded Rudolfs Balcers right into the glass around the halfway point. Middleton took offense to that, dropped the gloves with Stanley, who stepped in for Lowry, and they went at it. For reference, Middleton is four inches shorter than Stanley (who is a whopping 6-foot-7), but Middleton held his own. He and Stanley were sent to the box for complimentary fighting majors.

Middleton’s fight revitalized the tired Sharks, and they swarmed the Jets’ zone. The Jets were called on another penalty, defender Josh Morrissey for holding on Hertl, and the Sharks got set for another power play. On the man-advantage, Jasper Weatherby scored his first goal in the NHL, on a beautiful wrister from Erik Karlsson and Labanc at 6:43. If you thought the crowd was insane, they absolutely erupted when Weatherby flipped the puck in.

The Sharks were as raucous as the crowd.

By the end of the second, the momentum was all Sharks. They maintained puck possession, did a better job of creating sustained offensive pressure, and while they weren’t winning foot races to pucks, they used their physicality to offset their lack of speed.

It feels like everything that could ever happen in a hockey game happened in the third period.

It started with (what else) a penalty on Dubois, for elbowing Radim Simek. It sent the Sharks to yet another successful power play, with Hertl scoring from the kids, Weatherby and Eklund, at 16:35.

From this point, Hertl basically became the mascot of this game. After some Sharks shots on Connor Hellebuyck led by Meier, Balcers was shoved into the Jets goaltender from a Jets player (it looked like Dillon), and if there’s one thing sacred in hockey, it’s the goaltender. Hertl threw himself in the mix to defend Balcers, as any good teammate would.

While on his way to the box to serve his roughing penalty on Pionk, Hertl fired up the crowd, and SAP Center, unbelievably, got even louder.

The arena was vibrating. The Sharks fed off of the energy like it was Shark Week, and after Hertl served his roughing call and Pionk and Mark Scheifele served theirs, Balcers earned his revenge in the form of a goal from Meier and Hertl. At that point, the Sharks had a two-goal lead and just had to hand on.

Despite that, the Jets didn’t sit back. They continued to push for more time in the Sharks’ offensive zone, and while the Sharks had the lead, it was obvious that anything could happen.

The Sharks were called on a too many man penalty, served by Labanc, and the Jets had their chance to capitalize upon the Sharks’ fatigue. While not a power play goal, Winnipeg’s goal at 6:32 from Harkins with assists from Stanley and Morrissey followed the Sharks’ penalty kill.

The final five minutes trickled down with the Jets pressing for an equalizer goal, and the Sharks and Adin Hill making big defensive moves and saves to ensure the season began with a win.

The Sharks won their home opener 4-3 over the Jets, in front of over 16,000 ecstatic fans.

There’s a lot to look forward to from the Sharks coming off of this win. Despite their flat-footed start, the Sharks didn’t let their subpar first period overwhelm them, and they showed great camaraderie and chemistry throughout. They finished the game having led in shots (31 to the Jets’ 23), faceoff wins (59 percent), power plays (2 out of 5), hits (33) and blocked shots (21).

Remember back to the preseason notebook when I said that the Sharks needed to figure out what their identity would be this season? Bob Boughner and the team have expressed that physicality will be a focus of their game this year, but maybe the missing link they discovered in this game was heart.

The Sharks are heading confidently into a five-game road trip, the first of which will be on Oct. 19 against the Montreal Canadiens at 4 p.m. PT/7 p.m. ET at Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec.