Matt Nieto has found a home with the Colorado Avalanche, but he will always have a connection in San Jose Sharks history.
He became the Sharks' first-ever California-born player drafted by the franchise after the team used its first selection on him (No. 47 overall, second round) in 2011.
The Long Beach native played his first 221 games in the league with San Jose and remains a popular player with the Bay Area media whenever the Sharks visit Denver or the Avs travel to San Jose.
Nieto helped the NHL's Northern California club in two playoff campaigns, including the team's Stanley Cup Final run in 2016, but he is now tasked with trying to eliminate his former teammates in the second round of the 2019 postseason.
"They're going to be a great challenge for us," Nieto said last week prior to Game 1. "They're a team with a lot of experience and coming off a pretty emotional series. It's going to be a great series, big battle, and we're all ready for it in here."
Nieto joined the Avalanche on Jan. 5, 2017 after the Sharks put him on waivers and Colorado promptly claimed him. He has since registered 26 goals and 34 assists in 181 regular season games in burgundy and blue.
Through seven playoff outings this year, the left wing has produced five points (three goals, two assists), which ranks tied for fourth among Colorado forwards behind the team's top three scorers from the regular season (Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog).
He did his part in Game 2 of the Avalanche's second-round series on Sunday by scoring a goal to extend the Avs' lead to two midway through the third period. Nieto fought off Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon for the loose puck in the crease and was able to knock it across the goal line before it could be cleared out.
Video: COL@SJS, Gm2: Nieto puts it home in the crease
It was a key marker as it gave Colorado some breathing room on the scoreboard before San Jose made a late push.
"I think our line was grinding all night," Nieto said. "We're in the offensive zone, not really getting a whole lot of looks but working down there and playing in the O-zone. To get that one where it is just sitting on the goal line and we're all battling to get there, that was nice."
Nieto has been paired on a forward combination with Matt Calvert and J.T. Compher for most of the playoffs, and the trio has played in critical situations during the Avalanche's first seven games. The line is expected to grind out pucks at even strength and on the penalty kill, and that is what it did with 9:50 left in regulation in Game 2.
"Hanging around the front of the net and making sure we pay the price to score these goals is important. It's tough to create offense against a really good team like San Jose," said Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar. "You got to make sure that if there are pucks hanging around the net, we got to find a way to battle and punch them in across the line. That is what Nieto does, he comes right into that area and off the back post and he stays in while Calvert is battling in the second and third effort on that puck, and it turns into a huge goal."
Each of Nieto's three tallies this postseason could be defined as big markers, with his first coming while the Avs were shorthanded in Game 2 of Round 1 against the Calgary Flames. It was the team's first goal of the playoffs and helped set the tone for a 3-2 overtime victory that evened that series at 1-1 as well.
His second came two days later in Game 3, as he buried a rebound chance on a rush during another Colorado penalty kill. Nieto's two short-handed goals matches the franchise record for the most in a single postseason, and it was only the second time in Avalanche/Quebec Nordiques history that a player has scored on a disadvantage situation in back-to-back games.
Nieto's latest tally? That might have been his biggest yet for a club that is battling in the second round for the first time since 2008. And personally, it's always nice to score in a win against a former team, right?
"Yeah, definitely," Nieto said with a smirk on his face.