Humboldt Beacon (http://www.humboldtbeacon.com)

Three things to know: former-Sharks forward is playing a key role in Avs' turnaround season


By Paul Gackle, Bay Area News Group

Thursday, January 18, 2018

DENVER — After being a casualty of shifting times in San Jose last season, Matt Nieto is finding the right match for his skillset with the resurgent Colorado Avalanche.
The former-Sharks forward is playing a key role in the Avalanche’s unexpected turnaround this season, performing a shutdown role on the team’s second line after getting waived by San Jose last January. Nieto will be tasked with slowing down the Timo Meier-Joe Thornton-Joe Pavelski line Thursday night as the Avalanche (24-16-3) look to extend their longest-winning streak in 12 years to eight games at home against the Sharks (24-13-6).
The Long Beach-native is contemplating whether he’ll take the Nazem Kadri approach to defending Thornton by tugging on his beard.
“I’ll have to try to get in his head somehow,” Nieto said with a chuckle. “It’s going to be a lot of fun playing against these guys. I saw a bunch of them (Wednesday). I’m still really good friends with a lot of them.”
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After reaching the Stanley Cup Final with the Sharks in 2015-16, Nieto found himself fighting for his job last winter. The Sharks are in the process of rebuilding on the fly, which requires the integration of younger players into the lineup. As prospects, such as Kevin Labanc, Timo Meier and Marcus Sorensen, bubbled up through the pipeline last winter, Nieto found himself on the outside, unable to crack the Sharks 12-man forward group.
The Sharks eventually waived Nieto on Jan. 4, 2017 and he got claimed by the last team that anyone would have wanted to play for at the time, the Avalanche, who held the NHL’s worst record at 12-26-1.
“When we moved him along we had a ton of depth and we had some young guys that we had in the pipeline that we wanted to see,” head coach Pete DeBoer said. “If he’s still with us, maybe he doesn’t get this opportunity, so that’s what waivers and 23-man rosters are built for. If you’re not getting a chance with one team, you can get this type of opportunity.”
But early in the season, Nieto wasn’t getting much of an opportunity in Colorado either, serving as a healthy scratch in five of the team’s first eight games. Then, everything came together when head coach Jared Bednar put him on a line with Carl Soderberg and Blake Comeau in a game against the Dallas Stars on Oct. 24.
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Nieto, 25, scored a hattrick that night and the line has stayed together ever since, serving as the Avalanche’s checking trio. The line is contributing on the scoresheet, as well, combining to score 25 goals.
“They’ve really bought into their role,” Bednar said, describing the effectiveness of the Nieto-Soberberg-Comeau group. “We’ve given them a specific role of being a shutdown checking line and they’ve taken that to a really high level.”
Logan Couture, who played a shutdown role on a line with Nieto under Todd McLellan, isn’t surprised that his former-teammate is emerging as a backbone of the offensively-minded Avalanche’s defensive game.
“He’s a smart player. He knows where to go defensively, he’s above the puck,” Couture said. “He’s not overly physical, he’s not a big guy, but he’s got such a good stick. He disrupts a lot of plays.”
Nieto, who’s chipped in offensively with eight goals, as well, is also finding success in Colorado because his skillset fits well with the team’s up-tempo brand of hockey. Whereas the Sharks are a forechecking possession team, the Avalanche play more of an Eastern Conference style of game, getting out on the rush and using their speed in transition, which highlights the 5-foot-11 forward’s best asset, his legs.
“We play a fast-paced style here,” Nieto said. “We’ve got a young team and we’re learning every day. Right now, we’ve figured out what it takes to win.”
While the Sharks understand business nature of hockey, the team is pleased to see that Nieto is finding a home on a squad that’s just two points out of a playoff spot midway through the season.
“It was just a numbers thing,” Couture said. “You’re happy when a good guy like that gets a chance, and plays well, and makes the most of his opportunity.”
2. Nathan MacKinnon makes an early case for Hart Trophy consideration.
If the Avalanche manage to stick around in the playoff race, MacKinnon will make a serious run at the Hart Trophy.
The 2013-14 Calder Trophy winner is emerging as one of the NHL’s top forwards in his fifth season, tied for second in scoring (54 points), ranking third in game-winning goals (6) and 11th in overall goals (11).
MacKinnon, 22, has led the charge during the Avalanche’s seven-game winning streak, scoring in each win while racking up 14 points.
“He’s unbelievable,” Nieto said. “Every night, he’s getting a couple points or making plays where he’s wowing the crowd. He’s definitely the most-explosive guy I’ve ever played with. He can hit his full stride in just one crossover.”
3. DeBoer won’t tweak his approach against MacKinnon’s line. 
DeBoer isn’t going to tweak his approach against what might be the Western Conference’s most-dangerous line.
The key to beating the Avalanche is slowing down the line of MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, who’ve scored 51 of the team’s 141 goals (36.2 percent). But DeBoer, who rarely matches up his lines, is going to continue rolling 12 forwards Thursday, accepting whatever matchup he gets against the Avalanche’s top line on the road.
“If we get a line stuck out there against MacKinnon’s line, we’ll have to get the job done,” the Sharks coach said. “We’ll probably look for some defensive matchups more than forwards, but even that, you’re on the road. You don’t have that luxury.
“One thing about our group is we’re comfortable that if guys get out there, they can play against whoever it is.”