Tomas Hertl, the Sharks' lone All-Star in 2020, didn't finish last season with the team.
By the time the NHL suspended the 2019-20 due to the coronavirus pandemic last March 12, Hertl had been out for over a month after tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee. San Jose floundered in the center's absence, going 7-10-1 without him down the stretch.
Hertl showed the Sharks exactly what they were missing in Thursday's season-opening 4-3 shootout win over the Arizona Coyotes, scoring two first-period goals and picking up an assist on Evander Kane's tally in the third. Coach Bob Boughner said Kane and Hertl were the Sharks' best forwards.
"It was nice to get [a goal] early, and I felt great," Hertl said from Gila River Arena in a postgame video conference call with reporters. "Celebrating with teammates, nothing is better."
Hertl opened the scoring Thursday, tapping in a rebound past Coyotes goaltender Darcy Kuemper on the power play 12:43 into the first period. He doubled the Sharks' lead just over four minutes later, using his size to cycle below the goal line before grabbing a loose puck in the slot and firing past a helpless Kuemper.
In his first game in 351 days, Hertl scored three points and recorded three shots on goal in just under 22 minutes of ice time. Hertl's four high-danger chances were the most of any Shark, according to Natural Stat Trick, and he also led the team in expected goals (0.91).
Outside of goaltender Martin Jones, who stopped 31 of 34 shots in regulation or overtime, no other Shark made a bigger impact Thursday.
Sharks captain Logan Couture said Hertl's recovery from last season's injury was obvious when the two skated together before training camp. Couture saw a teammate who was "all the way back" to the levels he had reached before his latest knee injury.
"He's so strong with the puck and below the goal line," Couture said. "And tonight he was fending off checks below the goal line, taking the puck to the net and creating chances for his linemates. When he plays like this, he's a beast and he's tough to handle. We're very lucky to have him."
Hertl had success centering a line with Kane in the eight games prior to his knee injury last season, and the two carried that chemistry over into 2021, alongside rookie winger John Leonard. Leonard, who assisted on Hertl's second goal and Kane's marker, became the first Shark since Scott Hannan to record two assists in his NHL debut.
In a shade under 10 5-on-5 minutes, the trio saw a lot of the puck. With Hertl, Kane and Leonard all on the ice at the same time, the Sharks out-attempted (10-6), out-shot (6-1) and out-chanced the Coyotes (5-4). The trio also generated four high-danger chances together while allowing just one.
"I like my line," Hertl said. "[I've] had some games with me and Kaner together, and we've proven that we can be one of the best lines in [the] NHL, and I'm happy for us. We've built some chemistry. We have to just keep going."
If the Sharks' 56-game sprint is going to end in a playoff spot, San Jose needs Hertl to be the All-Star he was last season. Nearly a year after his last game, the Sharks couldn't have asked for Hertl to have a better start.