Programming note: Flames-Sharks coverage begins Monday at 7 p.m. with Sharks Pregame Live on Comcast SportsNet California
SAN JOSE – Matt Nieto picked a good time to find his game.
The 21-year-old rookie, who has goals in his last two games and seven points in his last 10, has seemingly found a home on what is the Sharks’ second line right now with Patrick Marleau and Tommy Wingels. Logan Couture remains out with a hand injury, although he has started skating again.
On Saturday against Tampa Bay, Nieto, Wingels and Marleau all recorded points on the Sharks’ first two goals, as Nieto and Marleau had a goal and assist apiece and Wingels two helpers. Joe Pavelski’s first career hat trick took center stage later in the 5-4 win, but it was the Sharks’ second line that got things going early.
“I think our line’s been clicking because all three of us are fast,” Nieto said on Monday. “We get in the offensive zone and we’re able to make plays.”
It’s been an up-and-down season for Nieto, both figuratively and literally, as he has experienced a pair of minor league stints. He made the team out of training camp, partly because of Raffi Torres’ knee injury, and had two goals and three assists in his first seven career NHL games on a line with Wingels and Pavelski.
He was perhaps the Sharks’ best player on Oct. 26 in Montreal despite not getting on the scoresheet, generating a game-high seven shots. Nieto missed the next two games, though, as a hand injury he suffered on Oct. 24 in Boston caught up to him.
He wasn’t the same afterwards.
Nieto returned on Nov. 2, had one assist against Phoenix that night, but then went through a 15-game scoring drought. In between, he was reassigned to Worcester (AHL) for two games, and San Francisco (ECHL) where he was briefly moved for procedural reasons.
“I started off the season doing pretty well and then I went through a stretch there where I couldn’t really find my game,” Nieto said. “I think I’m back to the way I was playing at the beginning of the year, and I’m just feeling more comfortable with my linemates, and I’m just going to try to keep continuing that.”
McLellan agreed that it’s been a process for Nieto to find his game in his first NHL season.
“He starts the year well, he earns the right to play here, scores early and then it kind of goes dry. We give him the opportunity to go to the minors and regain some of that offensive confidence. When he comes back, basically due to injury, he’s put on a line with Patrick Marleau and they seem to have clicked. They have a chemistry right now amongst themselves.
“He’s always in the scoring chances. So, he’s quick, he’s making good plays, so every night he puts on the equipment he should feel good about himself, about playing in that spot, and about contributing. The challenge now is to maintain that and actually grow it a little bit.”