Sharks rookies make huge contributions in season-opening win

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Sharks rookies have major impact in season-opening win originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

The kids are all right.

It would have been difficult to draw up a more promising season-opening victory for the Sharks than the 4-3 win they achieved over the Winnipeg Jets at SAP Center on Saturday night. The youth movement got off to a tremendous start, and of the two teams on the ice, San Jose did not act or play like the inexperienced one.

Pierre-Luc Dubois gave the Jets an early lead just over four minutes into the contest, and Andrew Copp doubled Winnipeg's advantage with a shorthanded goal 69 seconds into the second period. But for the vast majority of the remainder of the game, the ice was tilted in the Sharks' favor. And several young players played a critical role in that development.

Jacob Middleton technically still qualifies as a rookie, and the defenseman seemed to change the tenor of the game in coming to the defense of Rudolfs Balcers, who was dangerously put into the boards by Jets winger Adam Lowry just under seven minutes into the second frame. Middleton didn't shy away from fighting the hulking 6-foot-7, 224-pound Logan Stanley -- the exact kind of physical response that was missing all too often last season -- and the Sharks built off the resulting momentum.

A few minutes later, Jasper Weatherby became the first Sharks player since Timo Meier to score in his NHL debut, pulling San Jose even at 2-2 with a power-play goal. He and fellow rookie William Eklund soon followed with the first assists of their respective careers on Tomas Hertl's power-play goal at the 3:25 mark of the third period.

That was the extent of Eklund's scoring output in his NHL debut, but throughout the game, the No. 7 overall pick of the 2021 NHL Draft left no question that he belongs. His skill level and skating ability are so far ahead of his years, and though the Sharks have up to eight more games with which to evaluate whether or not Eklund should stick with the big club all season, his performance Saturday should eliminate any doubt that he won't. 

Balcers gave the Sharks a 4-2 lead just over five minutes into the third with their first even-strength goal of the season, and though he isn't a rookie, he's a big part of San Jose's future at just 24 years of age. Jonathan Dahlen -- who was the third and final Sharks player making his NHL debut Saturday -- would have made it 5-2 if not for a spectacular diving save by Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.

"Big goal by Weatherby, obviously, and (Eklund) making the play on that power-play goal, and even Dahlen got robbed at the end, he got that shot off," Sharks coach Bob Boughner said after the win. "All guys contributed tonight, and it was nice to see because you could tell there was some nerves early on with the young guys, but I think these guys will continue just to get better as they get more comfortable in the league."

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The Sharks came back from a 2-0 deficit to win. They scored twice on the power play and once shorthanded. New goalie Adin Hill came up with some big stops on point-blank scoring chances. But far and away the most promising development of San Jose's first game was the immediate production provided by the youngest players on the roster. 

If that was a sign of things to come this season, the Sharks are going to be a lot better off than most expect.