Quick Bites: Sabres curse means nothing to Hertl and the kids

The last time the Sharks played the Sabres, Jack Eichel was still in their line up. Oh, how things have changed.

The San Jose Sharks’ COVID parade continued ahead of yesterday’s game against the Buffalo Sabres. Kevin Labanc, Timo Meier, Erik Karlsson, Jacob Middleton, Radim Simek, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Matt Nieto all landed on the COVID Protocol for the game, joined by head coach Bob Boughner, and head trainer Ray Tufts.

As unlikely as this winning ‘Sharkcudas’ roster is, it will be changing soon, and sharing the city with an AHL team means the Sharks are sending players up and down at will (which means I’ll still have to check my roster every five minutes during the game to remind myself who is playing). The Sharks have since brought up Joel Kellman and Artemi Kniazev from the San Jose Barracuda, who might see their first action in Wednesday’s game.

John Maclean was still filling in for Bob Boughner, and he was joined by Barracuda’s head athletic trainer, Will Leonard, who was filling in for Ray Tufts. The notable face who was removed from the COVID Protocol was upstart rookie Jonathan Dahlen.

Every time I hear the “Sharks GOOOAAAALLL” rumble through the arena, it’s an instant serotonin boost. So you can imagine that when Dahlen opened scoring in the first period — especially with the shaky confidence in a team still depleted by COVID — that it was a good feeling, even with a record low attendance of just over 10,000. Dahlen scored on a wrist shot from William Eklund and Brent Burns while he was left unprotected in front of the net seven minutes into the game. If there’s one thing Dahlen does really well, it’s maintain a solid net-front presence.

At this point, you have to imagine the Vancouver Canucks are playing ‘Want U Back’ every time Dahlen does something amazing (which is literally every game). Unfortunately, the Sabres never let anyone else in the NHL have nice things, and barely a minute later Jeff Skinner scored on the tired Sharks on a delayed penalty. I’d say it took the wind out of the sails for the Sharks, but for the first time this season, their first period was energetic and productive.

I know, I couldn’t believe it either.

The biggest difference? Every regular roster member stepped up in the face of their absent line up and led the new guys. I’ve extolled the virtues of the Sharks’ young crew, but the maturity and leadership players like Jasper Weatherby showed in their driving plays and offensive pressure was impressive, and much-needed. Sure, Eklund still elects to pass when he has shooting chances, but the Dahlen’s early goal bumped up the team’s confidence.

The bright side of top-line players being out is that AHL players have an opportunity to prove themselves capable at an NHL level, and no one knows that more than Ryan Merkley. He was a Sharks first round pick a few years back, but he’s been slow to develop on the blue line. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t think he’s NHL ready yet. He struggles with energy and consistency, and while he showed amazing potential and skill in last night’s win, he is still a few steps behind the pace of play and doesn’t commit when he should.

That being said, Merkley made me eat my words when he snagged his first NHL goal (and NHL point) on a snap shot fed from Alexander Barabanov and Tomas Hertl with 12 minutes gone in the first. It was a slick move at the blue line, where he hung onto the puck, got it to the net, and as it went off Anders Bjork, it went in. Hertl, who had been waiting for a possible tip, made sure to scoop the puck out of the net for Merkley.

The first ended with a few AHL-level mistakes, mostly around defensive coverage. Buffalo was relying on ineffective stretch pass breakouts, which were a poor zone-entry technique for them, but one that led the Sharks to extended offensive zone time. However, once in their own zone, San Jose had trouble committing to defensive plays and clearing the puck. There were a few icings (indicative of a few nervous players now that the pressure was on after their first win) and in front of goaltender James Reimer, the defense looked shaky.

Much like the first, the Sharks entered the second period with energy. Rudolfs Balcers, who had been point-less so far, was leveling shot after shot at the net, but nothing seemed to be going in for him. After a few good shifts from the Sharks, Eklund had a chance to get his first NHL goal on a partial breakaway, but it didn’t work out. He’s an interesting player to watch, because the Sharks may elect to send him back to the SHL for further development, which is what he needs. As exemplary as his vision and lateral movements are, he has trouble finishing and connecting plays.

There was one player, however, who had no trouble finishing anything in this game: Tomas Hertl, everyone’s favorite locker room sunshine. At around the halfway mark in the second, Hertl forced a turnover from Dylan Cozens on a great forecheck, and sent it to the net on a wrist shot from Balcers. The goal extended the Sharks’ lead 3-1, and netted Balcers his first, much-deserved point of the season.

Not to be outdone, Drake Caggiula rifled a slap shot from far out that fooled Reimer high glove-side top corner, with six minutes left in the period, showing that the Sabres still had some fight in them.

The third began with a lot of jump, but the Sharks have typically excelled in third periods this year (especially with a lead), and the favor swung their way after it was clear this was Buffalo’s worst period of the game. It was also at this time that it was announced that defender Santeri Hatakka, who had skated off, bent over, after an uncalled boarding earlier in the period, was doubtful to return, and he ultimately did not.

Even without Hatakka, who had been on the second pairing with Nicolas Meloche, the Sharks defense still buzzed, led predominantly by Burns and Mario Ferraro. The Sharks were doing a great job of keeping the puck in the zone and winning battles below the goal line, which eventually paid off.

Ferraro gave the Sharks a 2-goal lead back, with assists from Nick Merkley and Weatherby, but they weren’t done scoring. Hertl completed a three-point night on a goal from Balcers and Ferraro, and, despite a late (and very confusing goal) from Skinner, the Sharks won the game, 3-5. Or, I should say, the Sharkcudas won the game.

Burns and Hertl were driving forces the entire game, setting the tone and pace for the rest of the roster and forecasting plays. But the question is, once the COVID outbreak has run its course, who, if any, of the Barracuda call-ups will stay? The Sharks have already shown they’re willing to lean on their young talent, and with the Barracuda so close and running the same systems, the Sharks can easily ‘try-out’ some of these guys in a few more games with a more complete line up (Likely the reason they’ve decided to bring up Kellman and Kniazev now — when in Rome, right?).

I’d think that barring a decision to be made about Eklund, the forward lines should probably stay the same, with Jonah Gadjovich and Barabanov hovering on the edges. Lane Pederson has generally been absent in most of these games (to the point where I constantly forget he’s on the roster, oops!) so if there are three players who may cycle in and out on the fringes, it would be them.

Defense is another story, as it’s improved with the veterans away. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Radim Simek aren’t the perfect bottom defensive pairing, even if both have shown new life this season, and with some younger talent along the blue line, the Sharks may need to make some roster changes going forward.