How Sharks owe season-long win streak to young players’ contributions

How Dylan Gambrell scored game-winner, extended Sharks’ win streak

How Sharks owe season-long win streak to youth movement originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

For one night, at least, the Sharks (17-16-4) are only a point out of a playoff spot.

San Jose’s 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings (14-16-6) at Staples Center on Saturday was the Sharks’ fourth straight victory, tying them with the West Division-leading Colorado Avalanche for the longest active streak.

It couldn’t have happened without vital contributions from three of the Sharks’ youngest players on the game-winning goal.

Defenseman Mario Ferraro, just 22 and San Jose’s second-youngest player on the roster Saturday, won a race to a loose puck behind his own net with just shy of five minutes remaining in regulation. Ferraro passed to John Leonard, the Sharks’ youngest player and Ferraro’s former college roommate, to spring a breakout.

The 22-year-old carried the puck into the neutral zone, dumping and chasing behind the Kings’ net before picking LA goaltender Jonathan Quick’s pocket. Leonard quickly centered a pass to Dylan Gambrell, 24, who fired the puck into a wide-open net with 4:37 remaining in regulation.

“Johnny did all the work there, so I can’t take too much credit,” Gambrell said in a postgame video conference with reporters. “He went end to end there and did all the work, and I was just there to tap it in, so kudos to him.”

Last month, general manager Doug Wilson said the Sharks were committed “to the reset in the younger players getting opportunities.” Ferraro, Gambrell and Leonard have been among the biggest beneficiaries.

Perhaps the lone bright spot in the Sharks’ dreary season a year ago, Ferraro has taken a step in his second NHL season. He was second only to Brent Burns in ice time on Saturday (27:12), and no San Jose defenseman has been better at limiting chances this season. With Ferraro on the ice, the Sharks allow over two fewer high-danger chances per hour than when he isn’t, according to Natural Stat Trick.

Gambrell, meanwhile, is averaging just shy of 16 minutes in ice time per night, which is over four minutes more than his previous career high. He’s also just two points shy of matching his career-high 11 points, which he set in 50 games last year.

Leonard, after a brief sojourn in the AHL with the Barracuda, has been a fixture among the Sharks’ bottom-six forwards. Since returning to San Jose’s NHL lineup on Feb. 11, Leonard has only missed two games and scored nine points (three goals, six assists).

You can’t forget 22-year-old defenseman Nikolai Knyzhov, who has three points in his last three games and five in his last nine. Nor should you ignore 23-year-old Rudolfs Balcers, who has 12 points in 22 games since the Sharks claimed him off waivers. Winger Timo Meier, somehow, won’t turn 25 for another six months.

In other words? The Sharks’ youngest players are filling important roles, all as San Jose pushes for a playoff berth.

“There’s still a lot of hockey left,” Ferraro told reporters. ” … We’ve still gotta keep going. Just as much as last weekend — when we weren’t doing too well [in back-to-back losses against the Arizona Coyotes] — we [had] to keep staying positive, and now we can’t get too high on the highs that we’re on right now coming off two big wins here. We’ve gotta keep it going. You can’t take any games off.”

RELATED: Leonard explains why Sharks have won four straight games

The Sharks’ youth could be tested even more in the coming days. Veteran defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic played just shy of five minutes Saturday before sustaining what coach Bob Boughner termed an upper-body injury.

San Jose is a point back of the fourth-place Coyotes, and tied on points with the fifth-place St. Louis Blues, who hold the tiebreaker with more regulation and overtime wins. Each of the Sharks’ next five games are against the Kings and Anaheim Ducks, whom San Jose has lost to a combined two times this season. It’s not out of the question the Sharks are in a playoff spot when the trade deadline rolls around at noon PT on April 12.

But even if they’re not, the Sharks can still take plenty of solace knowing the kids are all right.

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