EDMONTON – When Joe Thornton and Logan Couture got hurt in the final weeks of the regular season, the lights got immediately turned up on Tomas Hertl.
For several seasons now, the Sharks have tried desperately to make Hertl a full-time center, with so-so results. That includes the 2015-16 season when he was in the middle of the third line until January. Coach Pete DeBoer then bumped him up to the top line with Thornton and Joe Pavelski, and he thrived. Hertl even started this season in that spot, too.
But the key to DeBoer-coached teams, as well as general manager Doug Wilson’s philosophy, is strength down the middle. When Thornton, Couture, Hertl and Chris Tierney are all healthy, the Sharks have that.
Thornton, though, is still out, and Couture wasn’t very effective in Game 1 of the Sharks’ first round series with Edmonton on Wednesday.
Hertl rose to fill the void.
The 23-year-old former first round pick was the Sharks’ most effective forward in their 3-2 overtime triumph, generating Paul Martin’s goal with a strong move to the net and finishing with seven shots and 15 shot-attempts. In the faceoff circle, Hertl went 11-for-15.
"That's the best I've seen Tommy Hertl play in a long time. He was a bull,” Couture said.
DeBoer said: “I thought he was a beast out there tonight. I thought he was awesome. Big man – this is his type of hockey. He was dominant. Need more of that from him.”
Just before the goal, Hertl looked to be a target of the Oilers’ checkers, perhaps due to a hit Hertl threw on Milan Lucic earlier.
Hertl absorbed a couple of blows, but it didn’t slow him down. It may have even got him going a little bit.
“I have a big body, I need to use it too,” he said. “I like this hockey because I play hard, too. I don’t mind.”
As for Couture’s suggestion that it was Hertl’s best game in awhile, he agreed, although after sitting out the season finale against Calgary it took him a little while to get into Game 1.
“Yeah, it was probably my best game, seven shots – it was [a] really good game for me,” he said. “A little bit tough because I don’t play [for a] week, started a little bit tired. But after, my legs [kept] going.”
With Thornton’s status still in question for the series, Hertl’s performance was perhaps the most encouraging part of the Sharks’ victory. As a key to the team’s playoff run last season and a guy they sorely missed in the Final against Pittsburgh when he got hurt, perhaps he’s developing into one of those guys that plays his best hockey when the games mean the most.
“It’s playoff time,” Hertl said. “[It’s hard], you know? I’m ready for this.”