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Nabokov Helps Middleton, Gregor Wants to Stay

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Credit: AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

NEWARK, N.J. — The San Jose Sharks were cruising early in the second period.

So much so, Jake Middleton had just scored to give the Sharks a 2-0 lead over New Jersey. That was a good sign that things were going San Jose’s way — even in juniors, Middleton’s season-high for goals was just seven, for the 2015-16 Ottawa 67’s

“If you ask [my partner Erik Karlsson], I’ve had about 30 Grade-A chances — passes from him. He’ll be happy I put one of those in finally,” Middleton quipped. “Nice to score on a goalie too, finally, in this league.”

Middleton’s first NHL goal, scored last Wednesday against Ottawa, was against an empty net.

But the 25-year-old’s calling card, his defense, was responsible for an equally-important play in that middle frame.

On the next Middleton (21) shift after his surprise strike, he was faced with a two-on-one against Jack Hughes (86) and Yegor Sharangovich (17). It was still 2-0 and San Jose had been dominating so far, taking nine of the period’s first 12 shots.

“[Evgeni Nabokov] and I were actually talking about this. We do two-on-one’s in pregame skate. When a lefty like that is coming on the right side, he’s got a lot better angle to shoot. So when he gets down below the top of the circles, Nabby was talking about playing those a little more aggressively,” Middleton offered, before laughing, “I don’t necessarily have the quickest feet on the backend, so I thought the slide was a good play at that time. Fortunately, it went off my glove and didn’t give them a good chance.”

That’s right, goaltending coach Evgeni Nabokov came up big for the San Jose Sharks defense once again.

“That’s a skill,” ex-defenseman Bob Boughner noted. “We work on that — I know he’s been trying hard in practice to time that dive the right way, lead with a stick.”

But think about the potential implications if Middleton hadn’t closed on the puck carrier Hughes? Maybe a 2-0 Sharks’ lead is cut in half with more than half the game to go? Maybe James Reimer, as he has so often this season, bails out his teammates once again, but a quiet Jersey crowd finally gets into the game?

Instead, the Devils responded by letting in two more goals in the second period to spot San Jose a 4-0 lead. The Prudential Center fans loved that:

So count this Middleton stop — one of less-than-a-handful of New Jersey chances in the second period — as a pivotal moment in the Sharks’ 5-2 victory.

Like Middleton, Noah Gregor showed off both sides of his game on Tuesday night.

There’s his goal, obviously.

There’s also how much offense that he provided, especially in the first period. Per SPORTLOGiQ:

But that’s not the only reason why Boughner said this was “by far” the best game that he had ever seen from Gregor, who’s bounced between the Barracuda and the Sharks during the last three years.

“I loved his details tonight. At the end of the game, when there was three or four minutes to go, and he had to win a board battle, he was strong,” Boughner noted. “I thought he kept things simple. That’s a good line. I liked that whole line [of Matt Nieto, Nick Bonino, and Gregor] tonight.”

Here was my personal favorite Gregor play tonight:

Gregor (73) takes advantage of one Jesper Bratt (63) bobble and is off to the races. Gregor, to be honest, could’ve had a hat trick tonight — but I think he’ll take the best game of his still-nascent NHL career.

“I think I’m more confident now. I don’t want to go back down,” the 23-year-old winger asserted. “I’m just trying to do my best to use my speed. That’s my best attribute.”

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