The San Jose Sharks are meeting a lot of old friends tonight in Denver.
Matt Nieto, for example, played for the Colorado Avalanche from 2017-2020, before returning to San Jose during free agency in October.
Mario Ferraro and John Leonard played with 2020 Calder Trophy winner Cale Makar at UMass.
We dive into those relationships below, along with why Noah Gregor might be better suited for wing right now and flip-flopping Evander Kane and Kevin Labanc on the power play.
And in the SPORTLOGiQ Pre-Game Stat of the Night, we focus on a key category that may define this series.
San Jose Sharks (3-3-0)
— Locked on Sharks Road Trip (@LockedOnSharks) January 26, 2021
Colorado Avalanche (3-3-0)
Where to Watch
Puck drop is 6 PM PT at the Ball Center. Watch it on NBC Sports Bay Area, Altitude Sports, or NHL.tv.
Mario Ferraro is proud of what he, John Leonard, and Cale Makar built at UMass.
Something else to be proud about? Tonight will be the first NHL game that the three Minutemen will play in together.
“It’s special,” Ferraro said. “The stuff we did to build that program up, to take it from a place that they didn’t get much recognition or respect around the league. But after we left, I believe that we brought more respect to the program.”
UMass finished 5-29-2 in 2016-17, their worst record since the program was re-instated in 1993. Ferraro, Leonard, and Makar started in Amherst together the following season, and just two years later, the Minutemen were playing for the National Championship, losing to Minnesota-Duluth.
Matt Nieto has also been building over the last few years. In January 2017, the San Jose Sharks waived their 2011 second-round pick; last-place Colorado promptly scooped the 24-year-old up.
As the Avs grew from punching bag to powerhouse, so did Nieto, who developed into a Cup contender’s top penalty-killer.
“The coaching staff in Colorado did a great job with me. Always made me aware of where my game was at,” Nieto said. “They set that bar high. I definitely think my game matured since I was last a Shark.”
Luckily for San Jose, they’ll get to reap the benefits of Colorado’s patience.
Meanwhile, where will Noah Gregor’s development go?
The Sharks’ 2016 fourth-round pick had a tough start to the season — he was benched during the third game of the year after winning the third-line center job in training camp.
But Sunday’s return to wing, where Gregor played last year in the NHL as a rookie, seemed to spark him: He scored a goal and was a consistent threat with his speed and physicality.
Gregor agreed: “It’s a little less pressure [than playing center]. You’re not taking faceoffs. You’re not battling as much in the d-zone. Takes a little pressure off just to focus on using my speed and getting up and down the ice.”
“That’s the reason,” Boughner offered, “free his mind up and let him use his tools.”
Boughner drew a distinction between the 22-year-old Gregor and the more experienced Dylan Gambrell, who’s running with the 3C role now.
“Especially in the system we’re playing, our center is doing a lot of thinking. It’s easier for guys who have more experience to play that position,” Boughner said. ”
[Gregor] hasn’t, at the pro level, played center all the much. It’s a challenge, and sometimes, you get caught overthinking. You don’t let your instincts take over and that kills your speed and momentum.”
Finally, Boughner added an interesting note about flip-flopping Evander Kane and Kevin Labanc on the power play on Sunday. The right-handed Labanc joined the top unit, while the left-handed Kane went to the second unit. This move paid immediate dividends, as Kane potted a power play goal.
Boughner, however, admitted that wasn’t necessarily the grand plan: “That was a little bit of a one-off. We wanted to get a right shot. There were a couple low plays that we wanted to run against Minnesota because we weren’t getting a lot of offense from up top in the triangle.
“To do that, we needed a right-handed shot.
“It didn’t really open up a lot of opportunity. Of course, execution plays into that.”
It appears as if Kane and Labanc will revert to their regular units tonight, per Boughner.
SPORTLOGiQ Pre-Game Stat of the Night
Mario Ferraro noted this morning: “You have to know where MacKinnon is, like McDavid, where they are, even when we’re in the offensive zone. Because that’s where they pick up speed. They generate a lot of offense from 200 feet. It’s important that we know where they are, all areas of the ice.”
The San Jose Sharks are likely to get run out of the building if they can’t contain Nathan MacKinnon and company: Per SPORTLOGiQ, San Jose is 30th in the NHL with 7.23 Even Strength Odd-Man Rushes Against Per Game (Dallas has a league-best 1.43 allowed a contest, albeit in limited action). On the flip side, Colorado is seventh with 5.45 Odd-Man Rushes For Per Game (Tampa Bay is tops with 7.46).
This could be a highly combustible mix, and the Sharks could find themselves overwhelmed in the blink of an eye, considering the Avs’ speed and skill.
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