SJ Sharks

Sharks' Gutsy 5-3 Win Vs. Sabres Indicates Substantial Progress

Sharks well ahead of last season's pace after win vs. Sabres originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

For the second straight year, COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into the Sharks' early season plans. But this time around, they're handling it much better.

Last season, San Jose was forced to play its first 12 games on the road due to local COVID-19 regulations, which set the season down a path that the Sharks never recovered from. And this season, after getting off to a surprisingly strong start, the Sharks had a COVID-19 outbreak, leaving the team depleted of several top players -- and their head coach -- for an indeterminant amount of time.

Consequently, the Sharks have played two games thus far with a hodgepodge roster and shorthanded coaching staff, and after Tuesday night's 5-3 victory over the Buffalo Sabres at SAP Center, they've won both. That alone is an indication of the considerable progress the franchise has made over the last year, but perhaps even more promising than the wins are the players who have been central to them.

In Saturday's overtime win over the Winnipeg Jets, it was the big guns who stepped up, as Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier both scored in the 2-1 victory. On Tuesday against the Sabres, the big guns continued to contribute, but they got additional help from certain individuals who otherwise wouldn't have been with the team.

Ryan Merkley remains a very critical part of San Jose's future, and the 2018 first-round pick showed why Tuesday night in notching his first career NHL goal. With the score tied 1-1 in the first period, Merkley received the puck at the point in the offensive zone, deftly moved around a Sabres' defender and fired a shot that deflected multiple times before ending up in the back of the net. It was a perfect example of Merkley's tantalizing potential.

Merkley, of course, would be playing for the San Jose Barracuda in the AHL right now if not for the Sharks' COVID outbreak. He made his NHL debut in Saturday's win, and his mom and sisters were on hand to witness his first career goal.

Hertl, who had the primary assist on Merkley's tally, made sure to dig the puck out of the net to give to the rookie. Then, in each of the next two periods, Hertl deposited a puck back in it with two sensational goals.

The first gave San Jose a 3-1 lead. The second shut the door on any hopes of a Sabres' comeback. And both will go straight into his personal highlight reel.

RELATED: Reimer's remarkable start illustrates Sharks' goalie depth

Of the six Sharks rookies that played Tuesday, five recorded at least one point. Merkley and fellow AHL call-up Jaycob Megna were a team-best plus-three. Hertl continued his torrid start to the season, and James Reimer was strong in net. There were several noteworthy individual performances Tuesday night, but it was the sum of them that pushed San Jose's record to an impressive 6-3-0, with all victories having come in regulation or overtime.

Last season, it took the Sharks 24 games to reach six regulation-or-overtime wins. Clearly, they're handling the challenge much better this time around.

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