SAN JOSE – When the Sharks reassigned Kevin Labanc to the Barracuda for two games early this month, without telling him he was going to quickly return to the NHL after the rest of the Sharks enjoyed a rare weekend off, coach Pete DeBoer made it clear that the rookie had not yet earned the right to kick up his feet and relax.
“I don’t think any of these young guys have arrived yet, where they’re ready for weekends off,” DeBoer said on Dec. 6. “If they can play hockey, they’re going to play hockey.”
No doubt Labanc will get some down time now, though, as the NHL goes dormant for three days. The 21-year-old scored two goals, including a beautiful, goal-scorer’s goal in overtime, pushing the Sharks to 3-2 win over Edmonton and into sole position of first place in the Pacific Division.
Labanc now has six goals in his first 21 NHL games, including four in his last eight.
So, has he arrived?
"You know what, we're just going to take the young guys kind of week-to-week,” DeBoer said. “But, definitely, every time he plays, he impresses, and you gain more and more trust in his abilities and what he can do. He's got some special talents.”
Helping Labanc’s cause is that he’s seemingly finding chemistry with second line (and sometimes top line) center Logan Couture. He finished off a two-on-one with Couture in the third period, giving the Sharks a 2-1 lead at the time, and it was Couture who found him open in the faceoff circle just before Labanc picked a spot over Cam Talbot’s shoulder to give San Jose the victory in overtime.
“He’s a great guy on and off the ice,” Labanc said of his linemate. “Really nice to play with and kind of learn from him, as well.”
Couture said: "He's a guy that's consistently creating chances and scoring some goals for us. He's done a tremendous job."
On the overtime goal, Labanc showed his soft hands and knack for the net that got him recalled from the AHL in the first place.
"I saw that the goalie’s glove was a little bit down, so I knew I was going to shoot there," he said. "It was a good way to end the game.”
The home fans surely got their money’s worth, even before Labanc’s heroics. The Sharks controlled most of the first two periods, leading 1-0 on Joe Pavelski’s power play goal, but Edmonton responded in the third after putting electrifying young stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on the same line. McDavid scored one himself and set up Patrick Maroon for another.
There was also an undercurrent of nastiness throughout the night in what seems to be a budding rivalry. Brenden Dillon and Micheal Haley each dropped the gloves, and in the second period, Dillon took a couple of hits – one before the whistle and one after – from the hotheaded Zack Kassian, who got two minor penalties for his undisciplined play.
The remaining four meetings between the Sharks and Oilers should be pretty good.
“Both teams are big, physical teams. Seemed like a typical Western Conference matchup,” Dillon said. “Obviously with four more [games] against each other, it’s just going to get bigger and bigger.”
Although it’s only late December, goalie Martin Jones admitted that the Sharks talked about the importance of being in first place at the Christmas break. The Sharks and Oilers started the night with 41 points apiece.
“We know what the standings are,” said Jones, who made 16 saves. “That was definitely our mindset coming into the game, is we want to finish in first place. Would have been nice to get it in regulation, but we’ll take the win.”
DeBoer said: “We talked as a group about finishing strong going into the Christmas break, and they've earned it. We haven't had an easy schedule. But, we got contributions from almost the entire organization to get here.”
That includes the rookie, Labanc, who’s absolutely earned a little bit of time off now, too.
“That’s a great way to end [before] the break,” Labanc said. “But it’s even better that we’re first in the standings.”