Matt Nieto hasn’t played since Game 6 of the Sharks’ second-round series against the Nashville Predators, but the 23-year-old could be finding his way back into San Jose’s lineup Monday night.
After missing the past seven games of the post-season, including the Sharks’ entire Western Conference final series against the St. Louis Blues, Nieto said he feels as though the upper-body injury he sustained has healed to the point he can play if called upon in the Stanley Cup final. And if the third-year winger is ready to go, there doesn’t appear to be any reason for coach Peter DeBoer to hold Nieto out of action.
“I’m feeling really good right now,” Nieto said, via NHL.com. “I feel like I’m ready to play. The coaches know that, they’ll make decisions and if my name is called, I’ll be ready.”
If DeBoer feels comfortable putting Nieto back into the lineup, there doesn’t seem to by much reason why he wouldn’t take the ice for Game 1. Throughout the course of the season, Nieto has been a fixture in the Sharks’ bottom six and he had played his role nearly perfectly up until he was forced out of the playoffs by the upper-body ailment. In 11 games, Nieto had picked up one goal and three points, but where he might be most effective in the Stanley Cup final isn’t on offense, but when defending.
The one thing the Pittsburgh Penguins boast that is unlike any team the Sharks have played thus far in the playoffs is speed and lots of it. Pittsburgh’s calling card throughout the post-season has been the ability to punish the opposition on the rush, and San Jose’s answer could, in part, be to counteract speed with speed. As far as the Sharks’ roster goes, there aren’t many players with wheels like Nieto.
The difficult decision, though, will be choosing a player to pull out of the lineup if Nieto goes back in. Dainius Zubrus may make the most sense for DeBoer to remove from the lineup, but the veteran winger looked good during the late stages of the third round and it makes the decision to pull him from the lineup more difficult than some would have expected.
Nieto’s return to the lineup could also see the Sharks’ lines shuffled. Nieto has seen time this post-season up and down the lineup, with his two primary linemates being Melker Karlsson and Patrick Marleau. Before suffering the injury, Nieto was spending time with Chris Tierney and Joel Ward. Karlsson has since taken the third spot on that line, while Marleau has been playing alongside Joonas Donskoi and Logan Couture.