Sharks will try to follow in Jamie Baker's Game 7 footsteps vs. Vegas

Sharks will try to follow in Jamie Baker's Game 7 footsteps vs. Vegas

Jamie Baker didn’t have much time to enjoy the biggest goal of his NHL career

Twenty-five years ago next week, Baker scored the Sharks’ Game 7-winning goal that clinched a shocking upset of the top-seeded Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Before that could happen, though, San Jose had to protect a lead for over six-and-a-half minutes.

“Like, literally 10 seconds after scoring,” Baker, the former Sharks winger and current NBC Sports California analyst recalled, “all five of us that are on the ice hugging and all that, and [former Sharks captain] Bob Errey looks up at the clock and says, ‘Boys, we’ve got lots of work to do. We haven’t won this thing yet.’ ”

They ultimately did.

Those Sharks, only a year removed from winning 11 games, hung on to beat a team with six eventual Hall of Famers and win their first playoff series.

These Sharks have a few more regular-season and playoff wins under their belt, but they hope to follow in the footsteps of Baker and their predecessors when San Jose faces the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 7 at SAP Center on Tuesday night.

Baker’s goal wasn’t the flashiest in franchise history, but it is remembered as perhaps the most important. He pounced on a turnover from Red Wings goaltender Chris Osgood, and fired the puck on net with Osgood scrambling, trying to return to his crease.

But the goal was a product of the Sharks’ game plan and his teammates’ execution, according to Baker. He said the Sharks just wanted “to keep it close” heading into the third period, relying upon their experience from scratching and clawing for a playoff spot down the stretch of the regular season.

The Sharks jumped out to a 2-0 lead within the first 14 minutes, but the Red Wings tied the score just 2:36 after the first intermission.

When fellow Sharks forward Ray Whitney pressured Osgood on the forecheck, Errey took away the netminder’s pass behind the net. With Osgood in trouble, San Jose was in position for the go-ahead goal in more ways than one.

“I just stepped on the ice, and I sealed off the short-side boards,” Baker said. “The puck came and landed flat on my stick -- which was the hockey gods -- but we went into that game and said, ‘Let’s give ourselves a chance in the third period.’ And lo and behold, exactly what we set out to do as a group happened.

“They made the mistake … and you can’t do that at that juncture of a game, at that juncture of a series. They did, we capitalized, and then we hung on to win it.”

As he would the morning of many other elimination games in his career, Baker said he intentionally found things to do away from the rink to distract himself from the game. He didn’t want to make the same mistake he had earlier in his career.

During an important game when he was younger -- with St. Lawrence University, to his recollection -- he was “kind of drained midway through the game.” Big games “motivated him more than anything” growing up, but in this instance, his mind had been racing with so many thoughts leading up to the game that he couldn’t find the energy necessary to perform at the level he needed.

Moving forward, Baker did just about anything to occupy his mind. Whether that was going to the mall or -- in one particular instance -- gardening, he made sure to keep busy before he began his pregame routine.

“Once I got to the rink, it was so easy to get up for the game,” Baker said. “You knew that. So, you have to learn how to control your emotions and you need to peak at puck drop, and then stay at that level until the game is over. You can’t do it until you go through it.”

Many of these Sharks have gone through it. So have the Golden Knights, despite Tuesday representing their first Game 7 in franchise history. The majority of Vegas' squad is intact from a season ago when the Golden Knights won three elimination games en route to the Stanley Cup Final, including one at SAP Center in Game 6 of the second round.

If the Sharks find themselves leading in the third period just as Baker and his teammates did a quarter-century ago, he said they can’t afford to get ahead of themselves.

“These are two Stanley Cup-contending teams meeting in the first round,” Baker said. “If you get a goal, you know it’s far from over. … You can’t worry about the end, you have to worry about the means.”

[RELATED: Sharks' Game 7 history in NHL playoffs filled with elation, heartbreak]

Even after the final whistle blew on April 30, 1994, and Baker’s goal stood as the Game 7-winner, he said he still didn’t have much time to celebrate. Two days later, the Sharks began a new series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and his focus shifted to a new opponent.

Reflection on the accomplishment would have to wait until the end of his career, and since then, Baker's Game 7 goal tops many fans’ lists as the best in Sharks history. He joked that he hopes his goal doesn’t ultimately stay there since it will mean better ones would have passed his tally.

What Baker looks back most fondly on is that he had the chance in the first place.

“I tell people what I’m most proud of,” Baker said, “is that the coach was putting me on the ice in the last 10 minutes of Game 7 against one of the best teams in the league. I worked really hard for a long time to make the NHL, and you’ve got to put yourself in a position to get lucky. But, luck follows sometimes when you have the details and all of that.”

Sharks prospects to watch: Sasha Chmelevski has NHL breakout potential


Sharks prospects to watch: Sasha Chmelevski has NHL breakout potential

Editor's Note: This week, NBC Sports California will highlight five different Sharks prospects to watch heading into the 2019-20 season. Some have a chance to make the NHL roster as soon as this year, while others face critical years in their development. We continue with forward Sasha Chmelevski.

After getting his first taste of professional hockey to close out the 2017-18 season, Sharks prospect Sasha Chmelevski saved the best season of his junior career for what might have been his last this past year. 

The 2017 sixth-round pick scored six points in 10 regular-season and playoff games with the AHL's San Jose Barracuda in the spring of 2018, and followed that up 75 points (35 goals, 40 assists) with the OHL's Ottawa 67's last season. He impressed for the United States at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship in Vancouver, then finished second behind Montreal Canadiens prospect Nick Suzuki in OHL playoff scoring with 31 points (12 goals, 19 assists) in 18 games, as the 67's lost in the OHL's championship series.

Chmelevski, who turned 20 on June 9, technically could return to major junior as an overage player next season. But, he now is eligible to play in the minors as a pro, and could even earn an NHL spot with a strong training camp this fall. Here's what to expect from the talented forward. 

Sasha Chmelevski

Draft year, position: 2017, sixth round (No. 185 overall)
Position: Center
Shoots: Right
Height: 6-foot
Weight: 190 pounds
2018-19 team: Ottawa 67's (OHL)

Skill set

Chmelevski, who is from Huntington Beach, has a well-rounded offensive game. He has the on-ice vision to set up teammates, and a strong shot that he uses early and often. Over his last two regular seasons and playoff runs, Chmelevski combined for 585 shots on goal in 147 games, and has only been held without a shot four times during that span. 

Sharks general manager Doug Wilson praised Chmelevski's "high-end hockey IQ" when the prospect signed his entry-level contract last summer, and Chmelevski won multiple awards with the 67's for his academic success. He told the Daily Pilot during his draft year that he grew up admiring Pavel Datsyuk's two-way game and Andre Tourigny, Chmelevski's coach with the 67's, said that one element of the center's game stands out above all. 

"His best asset, for me, is his competitiveness," Tourigny told the Ottawa Sun in April. You play ping pong with Sasha, and if he loses, he will want to fight." 

Training-camp proving ground

Chmelevski will have an opportunity to break camp with the Sharks in September. The departures of longtime captain Joe Pavelski and wingers Joonas Donskoi and Gustav Nyquist in free agency created openings among San Jose's forwards, and Sharks director of scouting Doug Wilson Jr. told The Athletic's Kevin Kurz that San Jose coach Peter DeBoer would "like to have two centers on each line [who] can take faceoffs" in addition to mentioning "competition at center."

As Kurz noted, it's possible that Chmelevski will be in the mix for a spot on the wing as well as one down the middle. Chmelevski conceivably could get a look on Joe Thornton's wing on the third line if DeBoer moves Kevin Labanc on to Logan Couture or Tomas Hertl's line, or one centering the fourth line if Barclay Goodrow moves back to the wing. The Sharks have long converted centers to wingers -- with Pavelski arguably the most prominent example -- and Chmelevski's versatility bodes well for his chances down the line.

Best-case scenario

Chmelevski earns a spot out of camp, and never really looks back. DeBoer utilizes the forward in a variety of roles as he tries to settle on the right forward combinations, eventually giving Chmelevski consistent minutes on Thornton's wing. 

Separated by two decades in age, the pair finds strong chemistry and Chmelevski rides it to 15 goals in his rookie season. The void left by Pavelski, Donskoi and Nyquist is not entirely filled by the end of Chmelevski's first campaign, but the 20-year-old nonetheless helps by delivering on his initial promise. 

Worst-case scenario

After making the team out of training camp, Chmelevski's first professional season mirrors that of Finnish forward Antti Suomela. Suomela started fast centering a line with Donskoi and Evander Kane, but was sent down to the AHL on Dec. 11 and did not suit up for the Sharks for the remainder of the season. 

Chmelevski has no problems with the pace of the AHL thanks to his brief Barracuda experience, but still struggles to produce much offense and doesn't return to the NHL as other players pass him on the organizational depth chart. There's still hope for improvement in the second year of his entry-level contract in 2020-21, but he ends 2019-20 on the outside looking in at the Sharks roster. 

[RELATED: Sharks' Merkley needs time to develop, but future is bright]

Realistic expectations

Making the big club out of training camp would be encouraging, but Chmelevski starting the season with the Barracuda would not be considered a setback. That could allow the forward to establish himself at the professional level, and earn a look with the team soon after the regular season begins. 

Chmelevski should, at least, be in the mix for an NHL roster spot throughout the season. He has the potential to hang on to one by the end of it, which would be welcome news for a salary cap-strapped Sharks team in need of cost-controlled talent to surround an expensive core. If he can, San Jose's depth up front would look much stronger moving forward. 

Sharks prospects to watch: Why Ryan Merkley still has time to develop


Sharks prospects to watch: Why Ryan Merkley still has time to develop

Editor's Note: This week, NBC Sports California will highlight five different Sharks prospects to watch heading into the 2019-20 season. Some have a chance to make the NHL roster as soon as this year, while others face critical years in their development. We continue with Ryan Merkley. 

Doug Wilson’s first 2018 NHL Draft pick was a one-timer from the blue line. The Sharks general manager conceded that fact last June after selecting super-talented, equally mercurial defenseman Ryan Merkley No. 21 overall.

Wilson’s gamble raised some eyebrows, viewed as both high risk and high reward.

“We were looking for difference makers,” Wilson said (via Bay Area News Group) shorty after making the pick. “At the No. 21 spot, you have to take a little bit more risk. We spent a lot of time with this kid and we feel comfortable.”

Wilson was instantly cool with Merkley’s skill, as an offensive-minded defenseman and true blue-chip prospect. He grew comfortable adding a teenager with on-ice transgressions to his name, some history of insubordination and a selfish reputation.

The Sharks got a top-10 talent far lower in the draft order, and would glean great value if Merkley realizes his vast potential.

There’s a slim chance dividends pay out this upcoming NHL season, if Merkley can floor folks in training camp and crack the Sharks regular-season roster. That’s a big if and a big ask for someone so young, with so many established pros at his position. Here’s what to expect from someone many consider the Sharks’ best prospect.

Ryan Merkley

Draft year, position: 2018, first round (No. 21 overall)
Position: Defenseman
Shoots: Right
Height: 5-foot-11
Weight: 170 pounds
2018-19 team: Peterborough Petes (OHL)

Skill set

Strip away, for a moment, Merkley’s many red flags. Focus only on his talent, and one thing becomes crystal clear: The kid belongs.

Sure, there are lapses on the defensive end and he’s a smidge undersized, but Merkley has all the talent and skill required of NHL defensemen capable of impacting both ends of the ice. He has great vision and offensive instincts, accumulating points faster than most as his position. Merkley also is an accurate passer and playmaker who thrives going forward.

There’s little question he needs work on the other end, as he must prove consistently effective there and not put pucks in harm’s way.

Training-camp proving ground

Merkley doesn’t have to dominate in his second NHL training camp. He must, however, show growth and development from last preseason to this one, a stretch spent mostly in Canadian major junior in the Ontario Hockey League. San Jose has put significant effort into Merkley’s development, well beyond ice work, and wants to see progress.

Merkley lived with Brent Burns during the Sharks’ prospect development camp last summer, allowing him to see firsthand how hard the former Norris Trophy winner works and trains to maintain greatness. Burns and Merkley were drafted years apart, but in roughly the same point in the first round. They grew up in Ontario towns just two hours part and play similar styles of hockey at the same position, so emulating Burns would help fast-track Merkley’s development process.

Best-case scenario

Merkley’s a right-handed defenseman. Same for Burns. And Erik Karlsson. So, yeah. There are some roadblocks impeding significant minutes with the Sharks now and for the foreseeable future.

The soon-to-be 19-year old could still force his way onto the NHL team’s roster by showcasing great skill constantly enough to take a spot on the third defense pairing. He’d likely have to wrestle the gig from Tim Heed, who just re-upped with the club on a one-year deal.

Merkley would add instant offense to that group, just as Burns and Karlsson do on the top two pairs. NHL experience could possibly accelerate his development playing with and against the world’s best, making him a contributor with great upside on an entry-level contract or a more valuable commodity on the trade market.

Worst-case scenario

Great talent lays fallow, with on-ice efforts overshadowed by more of the antics that decreased his draft stock and built an unwelcome reputation.

The Sharks want progress from the prodigious talent, even if a loaded defensive depth chart doesn’t have room for him yet. A rough showing in Sharks training camp and a ho-hum season in junior hockey -- any signs of stagnancy or regression, really -- would be a disappointment for someone the Sharks believe can be a quality NHL player.

Realistic expectations

Merkley stuck around quite a while during last year’s training camp, even after the junior season started. The Sharks wanted him to learn from Burns and Karlsson and a locker-room culture known for its professionalism. They added him to the San Jose Barracuda roster on an amateur tryout late last season, after the junior season was over.

Merkley should’ve gained valuable experience there that he can build upon in 2019-20, a season he likely will spend in the OHL with a chance to represent Canada at the World Juniors this winter.

[RELATED: Can Sharks' Ferraro go straight from college to NHL?]

That isn’t a terrible thing. The Sharks want him to play, and he could get more from significant ice time in junior over being the Sharks’ sixth or seventh defender.

Merkley should be better now, with last year’s seasoning and a trade in the OHL now behind him. His best remains ahead. The teenager should post big numbers this season, grow stronger defensively and be ready to validate Wilson’s gamble the following year.