Tomas Hertl thriving at center and Sharks win over Penguins showed why

Tomas Hertl thriving at center and Sharks win over Penguins showed why

SAN JOSE – Sure, the Sharks’ 5-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night was chock full of highlights.

There was Martin Jones’ glove save of Sidney Crosby at 5:40 in the first period. Joe Thornton scored a goal in his 1,000th game in teal. Evander Kane had the puck on his stick nearly every single time he was on the ice.

Yet the most memorable moment occurred toward the end of the first frame, just before Tomas Hertl scored his first goal on the evening. That’s not to say tallying his second career hat trick in the final minutes of regulation and having caps rain down from the stands didn't make an impression.

But, Hertl was so committed to scoring that first goal he literally butt-checked Pittsburgh star Evgeni Malkin off the play in order to keep his scoring chance alive.

“Every guy’s laughing because I used my big ass again,” Hertl laughed when the media asked about the play after the win.

The Czech forward has been nails since coach Peter DeBoer moved him to center, a position he's played on-and-off in his time in teal. With Evander Kane and Joonas Donskoi on his wings, the Hertl-led third line – if you can even call them that anymore – keeps generating offense for San night after night.

With his defensive play and three goals on the night, Tuesday perfectly showed how Hertl has become comfortable and confident playing the pivot.

“I try to play to every game a little bit better in the d-zone,” Hertl said. “I still have to work out some details, but I think every game is better and better. I will just try to keep working and feel like a centerman for my wings.”

[RELATED: Peter DeBoer 'still a bit off' after suffering concussion]

Hertl’s transformation into a mainstay in the middle is another positive development in what has, thus far, been a productive campaign.

With the exception of some minor injuries earlier in the season, the 25-year-old forward has stayed relatively healthy and has emerged as an undeniable force for San Jose’s offense. Tuesday’s hat trick gives him 11 goals in 20 games – in addition to 10 assists he’s also tallied during that time. His third goal of the evening was also the 100th of his NHL career.

Not surprisingly, Hertl’s more excited that his line as a whole is playing well. Kane has points in eight of his last nine games, and Donskoi has registered four in his last five. Whenever these guys are on the ice together, good things seem to happen.

“I’m happy for our line because we’ve built some chemistry,” he said. “We’re getting chances every night. It’s really fun where we’re at right now on the ice.”

And how could he not have fun? The Sharks’ winning streak stands at seven games, and they’re defeating some of the toughest teams in the league – yes, even the Penguins.

“I’m so happy just for everybody on the ice because we’re just winning and that’s the most important,” Hertl said, flashing his signature smile. “Winning is a lot of fun. It’s not just about who scores, it’s about how we win the game. So I’m really happy for that.”

Brenden Dillon breaks down when asked about potential Sharks trade

Brenden Dillon breaks down when asked about potential Sharks trade

Brenden Dillon might have played last home game with the Sharks on Monday, and that clearly was weighing on him afterward.

Dillon can become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and the defenseman has been linked with playoff contenders ahead of the NHL trade deadline. The Sharks, barring a near-miraculous push, almost certainly will miss the Stanley Cup playoffs, leading to speculation that they'll trade Dillon before the Feb. 24 deadline. 

The possibility becomes more real as the deadline nears, but that doesn't mean Dillon is having an easier time processing it. 

"I don't know. Kind of [have to] see what happens. ... I like being here," Dillon said, his voice cracking as he teared up. "I try to play hard every night. It's out of my control."

The Sharks acquired Dillon in a November 2014 trade, and he has called San Jose home ever since. Dillon emerged as a fixture on the Sharks' blue line, playing in at least 76 regular-season games -- and all 60 of their playoff games -- from 2015 through 2019. The 29-year-old has played in all 59 games for the Sharks this season, too, and San Jose has become his home.

[RELATED: Sharks' Couture will have test to determine practice return]

Trading pending unrestricted free agents is par for the course for teams on the outside looking in at the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but Dillon's emotions Monday starkly highlighted the very real costs of making trades. Players are asked to uproot their lives at the drop of a hat, leaving behind friends, colleagues and often family. 

Yes, trades are a part of the business. The real and raw reactions are, too. 

Sharks takeaways: What we learned in 5-3 matinee loss to Panthers

Sharks takeaways: What we learned in 5-3 matinee loss to Panthers

The Sharks couldn't bring their winning ways back from the road to San Jose, losing 5-3 to the Florida Panthers in a Presidents' Day matinee. 

Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky was on the case, stopping 29 of 32 Sharks shots. San Jose cut Florida's lead to a goal two different times in the third period, but the Ice Cats pulled away and doubled their lead in both instances. 

Here are three takeaways from the Sharks' loss in their final home game before the trade deadline. 

Too little, too late

The Sharks entered the third period trailing by a goal. They allowed a Panthers goal before getting a single shot on net in the final frame, and Bobrovsky didn't have to make his first save until there was 6:37 remaining in regulation and Florida had a two-goal lead. 

Kevin Labanc -- on the power play -- and Timo Meier -- with goaltender Aaron Dell pulled -- got the Sharks within one, but San Jose never generated much of a third-period push at full strength. Florida ultimately held a 10-5 advantage in 5-on-5 shots and a 6-4 edge in 5-on-5 scoring chances, according to Natural Stat Trick. 

The Sharks applied pressure after Meier's goal, but the push needed to come much sooner. The Panthers instead set the tone from the start of the third period onward, and Florida took two points as a result. 

True chemistry

Dylan Gambrell and Alexander True appear to be developing some solid chemistry. The pair were on the ice for a 5-on-5 Sharks goal for the third straight game, when True's forechecking allowed linemate Antti Suomela to set up Gambrell's second goal in as many games. 

Suomela left in the second period with an injury and didn't return, but Gambrell and True were strong together. The duo posted a 60 percent corsi-for percentage in 5:34 of 5-on-5 time, according to Natural Stat Trick, out-chancing the Panthers 4-2 during that time. 

True has played in just six NHL games, but he and Gambrell have brought the best out of one another in their short time together. It's worth keeping the pair together in the bottom-six once Evander Kane returns from his suspension. 

[RELATED: Sharks' Couture will have test to determine practice return]

End of an era? 

Monday was the Sharks' last home game before the trade deadline, and they could look much different when they next play in San Jose on Feb. 27. Pending free agents Brenden Dillon and Melker Karlsson could get shipped to Stanley Cup contenders in need of depth, but the real question is whether or not the Sharks will trade franchise legends Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. 

Both are 40 and nearing the end of their careers. Could the Sharks give them the Ray Bourque treatment, and trade them to a team with Cup aspirations? The Sharks want to be back in the mix in 2021, but this spring might represent the last real chance for the No. 1 and No. 2 selections in the 1997 NHL Draft to lift the Stanley Cup for the first time in their careers. 

Thornton, for his part, told reporters Sunday that he didn't think Monday would be his last game as a Shark at SAP Center. The call should be Thornton and Marleau's alone, given all they've done for the franchise, and we'll know a week from Monday if they'll finish out the season -- and potentially their careers -- in San Jose.