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Hertl fuels Sharks' hopes entering Game 6 against Golden Knights

Forward scored twice to extend series, says 'we are ready for this challenge'

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

SAN JOSE -- Tomas Hertl believes the San Jose Sharks can force Game 7 against the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference First Round. And the way he has grown, the way he is playing, the way he can make a difference, don't you believe him?

The Sharks were behind 3-1 in the best-of-7 series, and Hertl scored two goals, his third and fourth of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, in a 5-2 win at SAP Center on Thursday that forced Game 6 at Vegas on Sunday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, SN360, TVAS, ATTSN-RM, NBCSCA).

Afterward, the forward was interviewed on the bench.

 

[RELATED: Complete Sharks vs. Golden Knights series coverage]

 

"It was just fun game, and now we know we have one more game and come back for Game 7," Hertl said, his voice carrying over the PA system. "And I believe it, because we better team than them."

The fans roared.

Video: VGK@SJS, Gm5: Hertl stakes Sharks to early lead

It was a comment in an emotional moment in front of San Jose fans, and it was by a native of the Czech Republic still learning to express himself in English. Still, it was a strong statement, especially the part about the Sharks being the better team.

The Sharks lost to the Golden Knights in six games in the second round last year. They're 1-4 at T-Mobile Arena in the playoffs dating to last season. Before Thursday, they had lost three in a row by a combined score of 16-6.

But they won Games 1 and 5 of this series by 5-2 scores.

"I don't say guarantee," Hertl said Friday. "I just say I believed in this team, because I think we showed twice how we can play. But I believe we can come back for sure.

"Not guarantee. But I can guarantee everybody puts everything in the game in Vegas and tries to come back. But we know it will be really hard. But we are ready for this challenge, and we must show them we can beat them there too."

Hertl could play a huge role in that.

Video: VGK@SJS, Gm5: Hertl nets second goal on power play

His talent has been apparent since he entered in the NHL in 2013-14. He scored twice in his second NHL game and four times in his third. The forward (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) has had all the tools -- size, skill, hockey sense -- but has battled injuries.

At times, the Sharks tried him at center, but they always ended up moving him back to the wing because he wasn't ready, he wasn't 100 percent or because it was easy. He was so good on the wing that the other centers wanted to play with him.

Last summer, Hertl was healthy, which meant he was able to focus on improving his body and skills instead of rehabbing. In late December, the Sharks moved him to center, and this time it stuck. He finished the regular season with NHL career highs of 35 goals, 13 more than ever before; 39 assists, 14 more than ever before; and 74 points, 28 more than ever before.

"You could always see the potential, but it's the first year I think that he's come into a season fully healthy, fully recovered," coach Peter DeBoer said. "I think he was good, and then we moved him to center, and it's made him great."

Look at the first goal of Game 5, which gave the Sharks a 1-0 lead at 1:16 of the first period -- huge considering they had allowed the first goal in the first 1:11 in each of the previous three games.

Hertl skated with speed in the neutral zone and received a pass from defenseman Erik Karlsson just past the stick blade of Golden Knights center William Karlsson.

"I think Hertl puts himself in a good spot," Erik Karlsson said. "He's working to take his space out there. For me, it's just a matter of giving him the puck."

Hertl used his body and stick skills to protect the puck as he squeezed between and ahead of Karlsson and Golden Knights forward Tomas Nosek. Then he settled the puck on his forehand in front of Golden Knights defenseman Shea Theodore.

A left-handed shot, he fired off his back foot. The puck rocketed past the stick and right skate of Theodore, then past the glove of Marc-Andre Fleury into the top right corner of the net.

The shot was a product of practice.

"To be able to let that go, I don't know if he would have had that maybe (in) October, November," linemate Evander Kane said. "I think he's put some emphasis on fine-tuning that a little bit, and obviously it's paying off. That's nice to see. We're going to need him to continue to play the way he's playing."

That's the plan, for Game 6 and beyond. Here's another strong statement:

"I think I can still be a little bit better player, and I want to prove it," Hertl said. "I don't want it to be this year I play good and next year be kind of up and down. I want to prove that I can be every year, you know, the guy."

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