Programming note: Avalanche-Sharks coverage begins tonight at 6:30 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet California Plus (Territory restrictions apply) Channel locations
SAN JOSE – The result of Friday’s game against Colorado won’t matter for the San Jose Sharks, who already know they will host the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs.
Suddenly, though, the night has become meaningful. Rookie Tomas Hertl, who burst onto the scene with his youthful exuberance, slick plays with the puck, and a smile that was virtually impossible to wipe from his face, is back.
Hertl will suit up for the first time since Dec. 19, when he limped off of the ice following a knee-on-knee hit from Kings captain Dustin Brown.
“I am very excited because it’s four months, no playing hockey,” Hertl said. “I’m very happy, and before playoffs, I hope it’s all good, and knee is OK. I’m ready to play, and ready to play in the playoffs.”
Sharks coach Todd McLellan will ease the 20-year-old back into the fray. Although he found a home alongside Joe Thornton and Brent Burns earlier in the season, that’s not where Hertl will start. Rather, he’ll likely skate on a third line with center James Sheppard and Tommy Wingels.
McLellan has the luxury of being able to tinker with his group, as the Sharks are locked into the second seed in the Pacific Division.
“It’s an exciting thing to see him back in the lineup, but we’re tempering that excitement,” McLellan said. “He’s not coming back and playing with Jumbo and Burnzie right off the bat. If he comes out and scores and has a great game that’s fabulous, but this young player hasn’t played since early December. He has worked extremely hard, but has not experienced a lot of practice time because of our situation. Him back in the lineup is exciting, but I have to downplay expectations.”
The head coach expanded on how he plans to use Hertl against Colorado.
“We’ll play it shift-by-shift. He’ll give us an indication fairly early of what his condition level is like, and timing, and all that. … I’d like Tomas to experience all of the moments that he might regularly experience, whether that’s a little bit of time on the power play if we happen to get a power play, regular shift.”
Hertl indicated that returning so soon from having the PCL and MCL ligaments repaired in his right knee was a bit surprising even to him. Still, he was cleared by two doctors independent from the club, including Dr. Anthony Miniaci, who performed Hert’s surgery on Dec. 31 in Cleveland, Ohio, and Dr. Mark Saffron at Stanford. Hertl resumed skating after the Olympic break, on Feb. 26 in Philadelphia.
“It’s a great story,” Thornton said. “A lot of guys probably would have been done for the entire postseason. But Tomas worked extremely hard, he’s a great kid. I think all of the guys in here are very, very happy to see him back. We’re really pulling for him to have a good postseason.”
Patrick Marleau said: "It's great to see, obviously. When it happens, you never know how long it's going to take somebody to get back, but he's put in a lot of hard, hard work.”
The fact that the Sharks will face the Kings in the playoffs wasn’t lost on Hertl, who grinned widely when asked about facing Los Angeles next week. Shortly after the incident, general manager Doug Wilson expressed his displeasure with what he perceived as a lack of empathy from the Kings’ captain, and the organization as a whole.
Now, Hertl can potentially help to end Brown’s season, as well as the rest of the Kings.
"It's funny because my last game was L.A. and first [playoff] game [with] L.A. is very close,” Hertl said. “I hope first round is [a] win. I don't need to score. I want to just play in the first round. Now, it's important."
McLellan said: “We have the opportunity to experiment with him a little bit. Games 1 and 2 in the playoffs, we’re not experimenting. We can’t take that chance. It will give us at least some indication of where he might be, moving forward.”
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Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Matt Nieto will not play against the Avalanche. Both players are healthy.
Alex Stalock will start in net for the Sharks, facing Colorado’s Reto Berra, who has not played since March 19. The Avalanche are carrying three goaltenders, including starter Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
Stalock, who came on in relief of Antti Niemi on Wednesday in Anaheim, is 11-5-2 with a 1.91 goals-against average and .929 save percentage. Berra is 9-17-3 with a 3.02 GAA and .894 SP, after spending most of the season in Calgary before a trade to Colorado on March 5.