The San Jose Sharks have moved out of last place in the NHL’s overall standings.
To those disappointed Sharks supporters already eyeing the NHL Draft Lottery, we say this: It was going to happen eventually.
Going into their game Thursday against the Detroit Red Wings, the Sharks, with some key players getting back to full health, have won four of their last six to climb out of the league’s basement.
No win was more memorable than Tuesday’s remarkable comeback victory over the New York Islanders.
San Jose scored three times in the final 8:05 of the third period, with two goals coming from Tomas Hertl and one from Kevin Labanc, before William Eklund took a pass from Mikael Granlund and beat Ilya Sorokin shortly before the end of overtime for a 5-4 Sharks win.
“I was just trying to get some speed there and Granlund made an unbelievable play to me,” said Eklund, who had the first three-point night of his NHL career, “and I just tried to rip it through the net and it went in.”
The Sharks are now 7-7-1 since a 0-10-1 start that tied an NHL record for the longest winless streak to begin a season. That’s good enough to be in 31st place overall with 16 points, one point ahead of Chicago (although the Blackhawks still have a better points percentage than the Sharks, .313 to 308).
That improvement has a lot to do with the Sharks’ top two centermen – Hertl and Granlund.
Since general manager Mike Grier had his meeting with Sharks players on Nov. 6 after that winless start, Hertl has 14 points in 14 games, including his hat trick against the Islanders, and Granlund has two goals and 11 assists.
Hertl put too much weight on his shoulders last season in what was the first year of his eight-year, $85.1 million contract. His numbers, 63 points in 79 games, weren’t bad, but he was inconsistent and too often would wear his frustrations on his sleeve.
Without question, there have been moments this season when Hertl has shown his displeasure. But he’s done so with being a leader in mind.
“I want to help other guys,” Hertl told NBC Sports California on Tuesday. “I play with young guys around me, and I want to be one of the guys like Joe (Thornton), (Logan Couture) and Patty (Marleau) who helped me when I got here, and I want to be the guy that helps them in their careers.”
Eklund had five goals and five assists since the meeting, including a goal and two assists against the Islanders, as he’s been producing on a more consistent basis playing alongside Hertl.
“He’s really important for me,” Eklund said of Hertl. “He’s always talking on the bench, always commenting with tips and tricks, something I really appreciate from him. Always looking to see what we can do better. Obviously for the team, scoring a hat trick today, and being the leader he is, it’s huge for us.”
Meanwhile, Granlund, after missing seven games in October with a lower-body injury, is looking like the player who had 64 points in 80 games with the Nashville Predators two years ago.
“First of all, getting healthy, that’s the biggest thing,” Granlund told the Sharks Audio Network after the game. “Feeling good and skating like I want to out there, that makes things a lot easier.”
“We’re starting to get some identity to our lines,” Sharks coach David Quinn said. “Guys are accepting roles and understanding roles and that takes time.”
On the other end of the ice, the Sharks, since Nov. 6, have given up an average of 3.33 per game, which ranks 12th in the NHL.
Kaapo Kahkonen made 33 saves Tuesday and he and Mackenzie Blackwood have combined for a .912 save percentage in 15 games since the first week of November.
In other words, what we’re finding out about the 2023-2024 Sharks is that they’re probably going to bear a closer resemblance to the .500 team they’ve been of late than the one that couldn’t shoot straight for the first three weeks of the season.
Maybe that won’t give the Sharks the best odds to win the draft lottery in the spring. But with the way they’ve been playing the last month, maybe that was never realistic to begin with.
“I’ve got to say, the whole team, we’re playing way better right now,” Granlund said. “Players are more predictable out there, that’s why we’re playing better. We’re getting these good results. Let’s just keep it going.”