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Where Sharks Blew Up Defensively, Sawchenko Shines in Emotional NHL Debut

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Credit: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

What didn’t go wrong for the San Jose Sharks in the first period against the Pittsburgh Penguins?

“We didn’t have our legs. We looked flat. We turned pucks over. We gave up too many odd-man rushes. Defensive zone, we were soft. They got a few bounces on goals,” Sharks captain Logan Couture offered about the eventual 8-5 loss. “There’s probably five to 10 reasons why they’re up 6-1 [after the first period]. Lots of reasons.”

Head coach Bob Boughner honed in: “For me, it was more forwards. Our F3, our high guy in the zone, we got caught deep below the tops of the circles. Gave them outnumbered rushes.”

Couture said there’s lot of reasons to point to for falling behind 6-1 — there’s also lots of people. So don’t take this as picking on just Matt Nieto, as there’s plenty of blame to go around when you give up a touchdown in 20 minutes — but that’s F3 Nieto (83) pressuring Dominik Simon (49) after the failed two-man forecheck from Nick Bonino (13) and Andrew Cogliano (11). Three San Jose forwards below the tops of the circles, puck behind them, means a Pittsburgh three-on-two going the other way.

As the lone forward high, Nieto can’t take chances like that unless he’s certain he’s going to at least stop the puck from going forward.

Boughner then added: “Our D would pinch and not have any support from the forward covering up.”

Hey, there’s a video for every mistake in this defeat:

Brent Burns (88) pinches down, which is 100 percent the right play here. It’s not a 50-50 puck, he gets full possession with ease.

But as Burns creeps down, so does Jonathan Dahlen (76). Noah Gregor (73), unaware of Dahlen, doesn’t switch at first. Then the Marcus Pettersson (28) bounce pass beats him up the boards to Evan Rodrigues (9).

To Gregor’s credit, he’s able to keep up with Simon on the backcheck. However, Rodrigues crosses up Radim Simek (51) to gain the slot and beats James Reimer.

The San Jose Sharks have three winnable games on the remainder of this road trip — Detroit, Buffalo, and Philadelphia — to wash the bad taste from this loss out of their mouths.

Perhaps the only Shark to not have a bad taste after this afternoon?

Zachary Sawchenko, who made his NHL debut in relief of Reimer.

“To make it here, guys, it’s overwhelming,” he told the press, voice cracking at times.

Behind Zachary Sawchenko’s Ted Lasso-Inspired Mask

First, a word about Reimer, who surrendered six goals on 17 first period shots before getting the hook.

“We didn’t play for Reims,” Couture said. “Screwed him over.”

Boughner, however, admitted, “A couple [defensive] mistakes, that’s when you need a save.”

Reimer has given up 15 goals on 88 shots out of the COVID break, dropping a second-best in the league .936 Save % to a just good .919. He hasn’t received much help, but he also hasn’t been very good either. Is Reimer, career-best .924 in a season, simply coming back down to earth? If so, the San Jose Sharks will need somebody to step up.

Help could come in the form of Adin Hill, who’s out of COVID protocol and received a conditioning start for the San Jose Barracuda today.

Hill hasn’t had a spectacular season, but the Sharks are sunk if he doesn’t shine at some point this year. Now is as good a time as any.

Or could it be Sawchenko, who stepped in to stop 20 of 21 shots and helped the Sharks come back and get within a goal of tying it at six apiece?

“He feels bad about that goal he let in,” Couture said. “But it was because of him we were able to fight back and almost win that game.”

Frankly though, Sawchenko would be an unlikely savior: He’s a 24-year-old undrafted free agent with an .896 career AHL Save %, who chose to leave the CHL route as a 20-year-old to play Canadian college hockey. That’s not the typical formula for NHL success.

But for one day, he came to the rescue for the San Jose Sharks with stop after stop like this:

And he’s been doing it his way for a while.

“I took a very unique way to get here,” Sawchenko said. “When I made decisions earlier in my career, people were questioning me, and I kind of always had that belief in myself knowing, keep working hard, keep doing the right things, and you’ll be able to reach that goal.”

It’s a memory that will last a lifetime for Sawchenko and his family.

The Calgary native continued, “[My parents] sacrificed so much for me to get here. I was just glancing at my phone quickly after the game. My dad was was super, super proud. He sent four quick texts just like hey, super proud of you. It’s equally as rewarding for him as it is for me.

“Mom, dad, sister texted me. I got two sets of grandparents at home that are smiling through their teeth right now.”

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