Noah Gregor

Sharks' young depth shines, old depth haunts them in loss to Avalanche

Sharks' young depth shines, old depth haunts them in loss to Avalanche

Joonas Donskoi had scored eight game-winning goals at SAP Center before Sunday, including the overtime winner in the Sharks' first-ever Stanley Cup Final victory in 2016. 

He scored his ninth wearing a color other than teal Sunday, clinching the Colorado Avalanche's 4-3 win over the Sharks in his first visit to San Jose since signing a four-year contract with the Avs on the first day of free agency. Donskoi also received a video tribute and an ovation during the first period. 

"It was weird," Donskoi told reporters in the visiting locker room after the game. "First time in my career playing against an old team. I never had that experience before, so [there] was for sure some extra nervousness, I'd say. A lot of familiar faces against us on the ice tonight, so it was a new experience for me."

Donskoi's goal was his 16th of the season, adding to his career-high. It was his 33rd point of the campaign, leaving him five points away from his personal best.

Though Sunday's goal ended a two-month drought -- the kind that frustrated former Sharks coach Peter DeBoer during Donskoi's four seasons in San Jose -- the Sharks have missed the Finnish forward this season. They've lacked scoring depth after the departures of Donskoi, Joe Pavelski and Gustav Nyquist last summer. The Associated Press' Josh Dubow noted just how stark the depth drop-off has been.

Add a host of injuries upfront into the mix, and the Sharks have tried rotating young players in and out of the lineup to find the right mix. That rotation continued Sunday, as interim coach Bob Boughner dressed rookies Noah Gregor and Lean Bergmann. Gregor didn't play in Saturday's loss to the Ottawa Senators, and Bergmann hadn't dressed since San Jose's win over the Pittsburgh Penguins eight days ago. Bergmann impressed Boughner with his physicality, and Gregor scored his first career power-play goal to cut the Avalanche lead to one with 44 seconds remaining.

The Sharks struggled to create much offense on the second night of a back-to-back, but San Jose's rookies accounted for a good chunk of its chances. Gregor and fellow rookie Joel Kellman each were on the ice for more 5-on-5 high-danger chances (three) than all but two other Sharks, according to Natural Stat Trick, while Gregor was third on the team with three scoring chances in all situations despite playing just under 15 minutes. 

"For four games in six nights, I thought we played hard," Boughner told reporters at SAP Center. "We had guys playing out of spots (after captain Logan Couture entered the concussion protocol), up higher in the lineup, more minutes than they're used to, young guys in situations that we had no choice (but) to play them in. I thought that the guys competed really hard. I thought we were physical. ... I think we produced enough, but they're an opportunistic team, and I think that they've got some world-class players and [that] was the difference tonight."

[RELATED: Sharks' Couture doesn't return vs. Avs after puck hits face]

Players like Gregor, who now has four points in his last five games, must continue to develop offensively if the Sharks are going to return to the playoffs next season. San Jose entered the season hoping its prospects could fill the void left by Donskoi and others this offseason, and that need is no less pressing heading into a long summer. 

Donskoi's Avalanche, meanwhile, are just two points back of the defending champion Stanley Cup St. Louis Blues for the top seed in the Western Conference. There will be plenty of fans pulling for him in San Jose, too, as seen by his reception Sunday. 

"It was fun to see there was still a lot of my signs from the fans," Donskoi said. " ... It was a special night."

Noah Gregor showing confidence, proving to Sharks he belongs in NHL

Noah Gregor showing confidence, proving to Sharks he belongs in NHL

SAN JOSE -- Noah Gregor made his NHL debut with the Sharks on Oct. 19 after being called up from the AHL earlier that day. The 21-year-old appeared in 10 of San Jose's next 12 games, totaling zero points and posting a minus-6 before being sent back down to the Barracuda on Nov. 17.

A week later, Gregor was called back up and scored his first career NHL goal in the next game he played. However, that would be the only point he registered before once again being sent back to the Barracuda towards the end of December after seven more NHL games.

Gregor had to wait almost an entire two months for his next pot of coffee in the NHL. Given how he has played since, he might have said goodbye to the AHL for good.

In getting the primary assist on Stefan Noesen's first-period power-play goal in the Sharks' 3-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night, Gregor offered the latest evidence that he has no intention of ever being sent back down. Since being called up on Feb. 13, he now has tallied three points (one goal, two assists) across eight games.

"Just a lot of confidence," Gregor explained what's different in this go-around with the Sharks following Thursday's loss. "I went down and worked on some things that translated into my recent call-up, and I think I've done a pretty good job of being confident and knowing I can play at this level."

While Gregor's self-confidence might be near an all-time high, he has also been given indications from the coaching staff that they, too, have confidence in him. Interim coach Bob Boughner recently moved Gregor up to the first line alongside Logan Couture and Evander Kane, and the rookie was actually manning the point on the power play when he found Noesen for the goal.

"He thinks the game very well. He's fast," Noesen described Gregor. "Overall, his hockey IQ is pretty good. Every time he's on the ice he creates something, and that's what you want to see."

San Jose's captain echoed a similar sentiment. 

"He's quick," Couture said of his new linemate. "He's smart. He sees the game well. As he gets more experience, he's going to get some more patience with the puck. He has a creativity where he can make plays. You can tell he's a skill player -- and he has got a good shot."

Both of the goals Gregor has scored at the NHL level support that last assessment.

Given the current state of the Sharks and the fact they're all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, you can expect Gregor to get plenty more opportunities to prove that he belongs. Consequently, he'll likely find himself in positions he's not accustomed to.

Such was the case Thursday night when Gregor had to fill in defensively for Brent Burns, who had previously jumped up in the play and was unable to get back as a Wild skater moved into the neutral zone. In an effort to get into better defensive positioning, Gregor attempted to transition from skating forwards to backwards.

To put it lightly: It wasn't the most graceful look.

"A little better skating forwards than backwards," Gregor said with a chuckle. "Tough pivot there by me."

[RELATED: Sharks' emergency goalie reveals how he prepares to play]

There surely will be more growing pains for Gregor as he continues to establish himself at the NHL level, but since his most recent call-up, those have often been overshadowed by evidence of promise.

Gregor has no intention of going back to the AHL, and lately, he's playing like it.

Sharks takeaways: What we learned in 3-2 comeback win in OT vs. Devils

Sharks takeaways: What we learned in 3-2 comeback win in OT vs. Devils

BOX SCORE

SAN JOSE -- The Sharks got a taste of redemption Thursday night, earning a 3-2 overtime win over the New Jersey Devils at SAP Center. Captain Logan Couture, playing in his second game since returning from a 17-game absence, scored 38 seconds into the extra session. 

After dropping a 2-1 contest in New Jersey eight days prior, the Sharks turned the tables and split the season series with the Devils. It required a come-from-behind effort, as San Jose dug a significant 2-0 first-period hole.

The Sharks found their groove in the second frame, however, and maintained that surge throughout the rest of the game. With the victory, San Jose ended a five-game losing streak.

Here are three takeaways from what the Sharks hope is the start of a resurgent six-game homestand.

Black and white

Since taking over for Pete DeBoer, interim coach Bob Boughner has been adamant that he wants the Sharks to be a "hard" team to play against, one that isn't easily pushed over and never relents. They couldn't have been further from that in Thursday's first period.

The Sharks edged the Devils 12-5 in hits in the first period, but that was deceiving. In the moments when it truly mattered to bring a physical presence, San Jose provided the resistance of tissue paper.

On the Devils' first goal, for instance, the Sharks allowed Miles Wood to drive straight from behind their own net and across goaltender Martin Jones' crease. San Jose lost sight of the puck in the resulting collision at the side of the net, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic ended up accidentally pushing it across the line.

The Sharks went into the first intermission trailing 2-0. Whatever was said in the locker room in between periods certainly worked, because when San Jose returned to the ice, it looked like a completely different team.

The second period belonged to the Sharks, and they got back to the kind of style Boughner wants to see. They out-shot, out-hit and outdueled the Devils in the faceoff circle in the middle frame, and managed to tie things up going into the third.

At this point in the season, establishing an identity is more important to San Jose than points are. As upset as Boughner must have been after the first period, he had to (mostly) like what he saw from the Sharks from that point on.

Strength re-established

There was about a 10-game stretch in mid-January when the Sharks' penalty kill -- which had been the team's undeniable strength all season long -- experienced a bit of a down spell. Any issues appear to have been solved, as San Jose's penalty kill has been back near top form over the last handful of games and was again Thursday night.

Not only did the Sharks kill all four of the Devils' power plays on the evening, but they also managed to score on one of them themselves. Joel Kellman and Marcus Sorensen combined for a perfectly executed 2-on-1 on a second-period kill, and Sorensen's resulting goal pulled San Jose even at 2-2. It was the Sharks' seventh short-handed goal of the season, which ranks in the top 10 in the NHL.

You don't often see bad teams ranking atop the league's special teams, but that's the case with San Jose. On one hand, the Sharks can be proud of how consistently strong they've been while short-handed this season. On the other, they must be disappointed that it hasn't meant much in the grand scheme of things.

[RELATED: What Kane hopes to teach young Sharks for rest of season]

Growing pains

After the trade deadline passed, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson insisted that the team would use the final 20 games of the season to see what some of the younger, lesser-proven players could provide. San Jose has been true to that word in the two games since, and as is often the case with youngsters, there seems to be a corresponding down for every up.

Thursday was no different.

New Jersey's second goal came immediately following a terrible defensive zone turnover by defenseman Jake Middleton. San Jose's first goal was scored by Mario Ferraro, and assisted by fellow rookie Noah Gregor. Shortly thereafter, Lean Bergmann -- playing in his first NHL game since Nov. 7 -- took a bad tripping penalty in the offensive zone, sapping much of the team's momentum. Several minutes later, Kellman made a tremendous cross-ice pass to find Sorensen for the tying goal.

Get used to the growing pains. This is who the Sharks are for the remainder of the 2019-20 season.