San Jose rookie left wing Matt Nieto made a case for more playing time Sunday afternoon in a matinee against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center.
Nieto, who has been in and out of the lineup during his first year as a professional, scored on a beautiful one-timer at 6:20 of the third period to register the game-winning goal in a 4-2 victory that hurt the Devils push for a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Nieto, a healthy scratch against the Buffalo Sabres on Friday, was re-inserted into the lineup Sunday and played alongside big guns Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton. Each member of the line had a hand in the goal that turned the game.
Thornton started the play with a sweet pass to Pavelski in the neutral zone and Pavelski, then hit Nieto as he stormed into the zone. Nieto went down to one knee as he slammed a one-timer past Devils goalie Cory Schneider (18 saves).
"We had an out-numbered rush and Jumbo [Thornton] made a great pass to Pavs and me and Pavs kind of had a mini 2-on-1 there," Nieto said. "He laid it out for me and I was able to get everything on it and get it by him."
The goal was a tangible reward for a solid effort throughout the game by Nieto.
"I know what I have to do when I play with those guys," Nieto said. "They are puck-possession guys, so I have to get in on the forecheck, win the pucks for them and when I get them the puck and get open."
Nieto's goal turned a back-and-forth game in the favor of the Sharks (39-17-6), who took four points from the three-game road trip to start the post-Olympic break portion of their schedule.
For the Devils (26-23-13), though, it was an opportunity lost in their quest to gain ground in the playoff chase. Like the Sharks, New Jersey was playing its third game in four nights and was looking to build on back-to-back victories against the Columbus Blue Jackets and the New York Islanders.
The Devils, in fact, had a second-period lead after Adam Henrique and Patrik Elias scored back-to-back goals to erase a 1-0 lead forged by a goal by Logan Couture. But, a costly turnover by defenseman Andy Greene allowed Raffi Torres to score the tying goal on an odd-man rush 92 seconds after Elias gave the Devils the lead.
"It was a bad turnover," Greene said. "I didn't look too much because I didn't want to get killed by the weak side defenseman. I just kind of glanced and I thought I saw [Zubrus] there. I think he was straddling the line to stay onside."
That goal, the third in two games for Torres, who returned from a knee injury Thursday in a win against the Philadelphia Flyers, set the stage for a winner-take-all third period.
"We knew if we won the third period, we were going to win the game," Nieto said. "It's a great way to end the road trip."
The Devils, meanwhile, were left to rue missed opportunities throughout the game. Sharks goalie Alex Stalock finished with 21 saves and frustrated the Devils on several grade-A chances, including one by Elias in the sequence before Nieto scored.
"We did a lot of good stuff," Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. "We gave ourselves a chance under a tough circumstance to get points and it didn't happen."
Now, the Devils face an even steeper climb back into the playoff picture. The Flyers won against the Washington Capitals in overtime Sunday afternoon. The win moved Philadelphia into second place in the Metropolitan Division and gave it a five-point cushion on New Jersey.
The Detroit Red Wings occupy the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference and hold a three-point lead on the Devils. New Jersey plays a home-and-home against Detroit later this week.
New Jersey has 20 games remaining to make up the points deficit and leapfrog the four teams between it and a playoff berth.
"We can't afford to let this slide now," Devils wing Ryane Clowe said. "Even though we lost, I thought the effort was there. But we have to get back to where we were the first two games after the break. We have a big test."