Sharks' Melnichuk fights nerves during first NHL start

Sharks' Alexei Melnichuk

The Sharks are playing out the string, trotting out lineups in order to evaluate players and their place ahead of next season.

San Jose coach Bob Boughner said the Sharks' games following their elimination from playoff contention have reminded him of the time his team didn't have entering this abbreviated 56-game season. 

"It feels a little bit like preseason should've felt," Boughner told reporters in a video conference Saturday, following the Sharks' 5-4 loss to the Arizona Coyotes. "You're trying different guys and different combinations.

"Tonight, we put some new faces on the [penalty kill], just trying to experiment a little bit and put guys in situations hopefully to succeed, and I think you've seen that in the last couple weeks. ... It's an opportunity for these young guys, and the veterans have to do their part leading and playing hard. And I think everybody has done that."

One of those young guys Saturday was 22-year-old goaltender Alexei Melnichuk, who made the first NHL start of his career. Melnichuk had previously relieved Martin Jones in a Feb. 11 loss to the Los Angeles Kings but played in only 15 AHL games with the Barracuda between then and Saturday, and his lack of North American professional experience wouldn't have been out of place in a preseason contest.

The Russian rookie stopped 27 of the 32 shots he faced Saturday, including 24 of 26 in 5-on-5 situations. He bobbled his first save and Christian Dvorak scored on the Coyotes' third shot, but Melnichuk told reporters -- via his translator, rookie defenseman Nikolai Knyzhov -- that he started to feel more comfortable as the game wore on.


Melnichuk has bounced between the AHL, the taxi squad and the Sharks this season, admitting to reporters he has played this season in "a very unstable atmosphere" amid "a very compressed" schedule. But he was thrilled to make his NHL debut Saturday, and he has learned some vital lessons during a most unusual rookie season.

"It's tough for everyone, but he says it's a great experience and he's gonna take away from it as much as he can going into the next year," Knyzhov said, translating for Melnichuk.

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Boughner could sense Melnichuk's nerves, and the coach said the young netminder would probably like "one or two" of the goals he allowed back. Jan Jenik roofed a rolling puck over a prone Melnichuk from a tight angle practically along the goal line, while veteran sniper Phil Kessel tucked the overtime winner at Melnichuk's near post.

According to Natural Stat Trick, Melnichuk gave up five goals on 3.69 expected goals worth of chances in all situations. During 5-on-5 play, the rookie allowed two goals against 2.69 expected.

Melnichuk, like fellow rookie Ivan Chekhovich, began his season in the KHL. Saturday's start was his 33rd appearance in three different leagues since September, not to mention his time "being bumped around" -- as Boughner put it -- to the Sharks' taxi squad.

Now, with a major item on his professional bucket list checked off, Boughner hopes Melnichuk feels more secure when he next takes the net. Perhaps that's in Wednesday's regular-season finale against the Vegas Golden Knights or, just maybe, in an actual preseason game this fall.

"He got his game in, and we got a point and I think that whole thing's behind him now," Boughner said. "And hopefully he feels more comfortable in his next start."