There’s nothing like being in the car on your way to the SAP Center and finding out that five San Jose Barracuda players were recalled to fill in for presumably, the Sharks’ top line.
And there’s truly nothing like the mad scramble of everyone in the press area trying to squint and read the jersey numbers on the ice to figure out who was — and wasn’t — in the line up during warm-ups. We weren’t given any formal rosters or lines, or any real information ahead of puck drop, so for those of us in the press box, it was a lesson in teamwork and stress management.
It sounded like a similar situation for the San Jose Sharks, whose typical game-day routine was altered when they were told this morning to come to the rink and get re-tested, as some tests from Oct. 29 came back positive (Per the NHL’s COVID policy, vaccinated players and staff are PCR tested every three days).
Just hours before the game, the Sharks recalled John Leonard (F), Nick Merkley (F), Jaycob Megna (D), Nicolas Meloche (D) and Ryan Merkley (D) from the Barracuda, to account for the seven Sharks players placed on the COVID-19 Protocol list: Andrew Cogliano (F), Jonathan Dahlen (F), Matt Nieto (F), Erik Karlsson (D), Jake Middleton (D), Radim Simek (D) and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (D).
Along with the seven Sharks skaters, head coach Bob Boughner and Noah Gregor (F) of the Barracuda were placed on Protocol. Filling in for Boughner behind the bench was assistant coach John Maclean, joined by assistant coach of development, Mike Ricci.
It was also, strangely, a big game for some of the Sharks (and ‘Cuda). Santeri Hatakka and Ryan Merkley made their NHL debuts, it was Rudolfs Balcers’ 100th NHL game and there were seven players aged 23 and under playing for San Jose in Ryan Merkley, Mario Ferraro, Jasper Weatherby, Jonah Gadjovich, John Leonard, Santeri Hatakka and William Eklund.
Oh, where was Captain Logan Couture, you ask? Apparently he was feeling under the weather. Not COVID-related, just sick.
First of all, who were these players and what did they do with our Sharks who couldn’t get concentrated zone time in the first period this entire season? The pressure to perform on an NHL level for the AHL guys and prove their worth made for a great first period, considering the circumstances. Despite a few early shots on goal by the Winnipeg Jets (but no first period goal curse), the Sharks had a series of successful zone entries, good defensive coverage off the draw and dangerous chances.
This is all without practicing together beforehand. To be fair, you could tell this was an untested roster at times, with the few moments of miscommunication, especially behind and in front of their own net. That being said, there were a ton of rush chances and that storyline continued throughout the game.
The abundance of rush chances wasn’t totally unexpected. With mixed-up lines made of half-Barracuda players, the Sharks relied more on individual skill and breakouts rather than set plays.
The Sharks’ power play was tested too during the first. The first unit was Bonino, Burns, Meier, Barabanov and Hertl, and the second featured Eklund, Labanc, Nick Merkley, Ryan Merkley and Weatherby.
The second period began with energy from Winnipeg, but the Sharks matched it no problem. One of the most noticeable changes with the Sharks was how much faster they were on the ice, due to their younger line up. The youth was also ready to throw hands, with Hatakka goading Pierre Luc-Dubois into a penalty, and a few pushing and shoving matches.
The Sharks continued to have great rush chances in the second, and good battles along the board. Overall, the defensive coverage was the best it’d looked since the start of the season, which means that it might either be beginner’s pressure, or a sign for the coaching staff to change up the defense pairings.
Regardless, the Sharks’ lack of overall chemistry reared its head in their inability to capitalize upon their own rebounds and missed stretch passes. The team was surprisingly adept at creating space, and for the most part, good at taking advantage of it.
For the third period, Winnipeg came out with pressure, but San Jose played their best period yet, having finally settled mostly into the groove of each other’s line mates. There were a few rush chances given up in the neutral zone, and a few bad passes by the Sharks.
The Sharks showed their AHL colors in those final five minutes of regulation, with the pressure of a tied game, the Jet’s speed and the fact that the recalled players had played the night before at home against the Colorado Eagles.
It was clear Winnipeg wanted to end it in regulation, and they almost did, if not for James Reimer. The Jets might have been expecting an easier Sharks team and their only real pressure was towards the end of the game. The period looked set to expire in the Sharks’ favor, but a late goal by Kyle Connor to tie it up and some defensive miscues by the Sharks brought the game to overtime.
As a general rule, overtime is a good thing. Win or lose, the team gets a point, and after losing some of their top players and their coach, the team deserved it. The Sharks drove the first minute of the extra frame and the Burns was hauled down to the ice by Nikolaj Ehlers, which sent the Sharks to a 4-on-3 power play. Unsurprisingly, the game-winning goal came on the man-advantage on a slap shot fed from Brent Burns, sent past Connor Hellebuyck by Timo Meier. The Sharks gave up a point to Winnipeg, but still took home the victory.
Reimer was the undisputed hero of the game, with 34 saves on 35 shots, for a .971 save percentage, but he was quick to share the love in the post-game media availability.
“The D were phenomenal. As a goalie, obviously they feed off your energy, but you feed off them too,” Reimer said.
When asked about the young guys who had to fill in for the top-liners, he added, “I trusted them. I knew the way they could perform ... And kudos to them, they didn’t know they were going to play when they woke up this morning.”