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The Sharks Believe: “We can play with anyone.”



Credit: AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

From the first shift of the San Jose Sharks’ 3-2 OT loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Mario Ferraro’s impact was evident.

Ferraro’s (38) head fake and quick feet elude forechecker Ondrej Palat (18). His motor allows him to join the rush and be an option for Alexander Barabanov (94), who’s pressured by Palat.

Ferraro is one of the better defenseman in the NHL in terms of denying zone entries. This is the elusive Brayden Point (21) — but Ferraro matches Point’s speed, keeps a tight gap, doesn’t fall for the attacker’s initial deception, and bats the puck away with ease before the line.

The expectation, of course, was that Ferraro wouldn’t play after suffering a serious jaw injury on Saturday. But play Ferraro did, totaling 27:21 in his suprise return.

“He didn’t miss a beat, he was great. Blocked shots. What a warrior, man,” San Jose Sharks captain Logan Couture said. “I was pretty shocked when I got the rink today and he was getting that visor put on his helmet. I thought he was nuts.

“But he wants to play, wants to play for the guys in the room — those are leaders. Those are guys, they’ll do anything to help their teammates out in a tough spot. A lot of respect to Mario.”

Ferraro’s return, as we see here, wasn’t just an emotional lift though — he’s one of just a couple San Jose Sharks defensemen who can hang with the best of the best players in the world for most of a night. His return pushes a journeyman like say Jaycob Megna — no disrespect intended — down the line-up, which is good for the San Jose Sharks long-term.

Speaking of pushing players down in the line-up for the betterment of the team, Rudolfs Balcers’s triumphant return to the top-nine — he has two goals and one assist since coming back in Florida — has injected life into the fourth line, in the form of Noah Gregor.

Gregor had been occupying Balcers’s current spot on the second line next to Couture — and the speedster had been doing good work accumulating scoring chances, but only had two goals to show for it through 27 games. In fact, per Natural Stat Trick, since Gregor’s call-up on Nov. 20, the winger is third among San Jose Sharks forwards in Scoring Chances at 5-on-5 behind only Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl.

So you can argue that while Gregor wasn’t an ideal top-six winger because of his lack of finish, he might be overqualified for a fourth-line role — which is exactly what you want when you’re building a roster. In a perfect world, you want your fourth-liners to be capable third-liners, third-liners to be capable second-liners, and second-liners to be capable first-liners. That’s depth.

As I’ve noted a few times before too, Gregor isn’t just giving you missed scoring chances either.

Here’s Gregor (73) helping out defensively, intercepting the centering pass. But what really stood out was the youngster’s poise with the puck.

When he first grabs possession, he leans toward his left, but he sees forechecker Boris Katchouk (13) mirroring him, so he doesn’t skate into Katchouk’s trap.

That forces him into a sea of Sharks and Lightning; Gregor has to navigate through Darren Raddysh (16) and Ross Colton (79). At this point, many a player would just throw the puck into the corner, hand his problem to somebody else instead of risking a turnover in a dangerous area.

But Gregor holds and eats the puck behind James Reimer. He knows Raddysh and Colton will converge, but he’s also relying on Ferraro and Brent Burns (88) to help out.

And that’s what happens: Raddysh takes the puck for a second, but Ferraro eliminates him, moves it to Jonah Gadjovich (42). Gadjovich makes a good play himself, drawing a penalty on Cal Foote (52).

“Sometimes you put guys in positions where they’re more comfortable,” Boughner said of Gregor, “they got more chance to succeed.”

A week and a half ago, after the Lightning zapped the Sharks 7-1 at SAP Center, I asked, “Who are the San Jose Sharks? We’re about to find out.”

The Sharks were about to embark on what I’ve dubbed “The Bermuda Triangle” road trip — through Atlantic-leading Florida, Metropolitan-leading Carolina, and the two-time defending champs. Let’s not forgot, of course, perennial power Washington to kick off the road trip.

San Jose came out with four points and definitely could’ve had more, hanging tough with the best teams in the NHL.

So who are the Sharks?

The captain offered: “There’s a lot of belief in that room that we can play with anyone.”

“It’s just gonna be that way,” Brent Burns pointed out, “just grind every night and push for each other.”

“You see 20 guys every night fighting hard for each other,” Boughner said.

Heading into the All-Star break, the Sharks are just two points back of the last wild card spot in the West. Other teams do have games in hand, but…

“I like the way our schedule sets up for the second half,” Boughner acknowledged. “We play a lot of teams around us that are either just ahead of us or just behind us and that’s a good thing.”

That includes a ton of divisional rivals: Through 46 games, the San Jose Sharks have played just six divisional contests. In the final 36 games of the regular season, the Sharks will line up for 20 such battles.

“I guess our fate’s in our own hands,” Boughner said.

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