March 20, 2016 By Paul Gackle

Rink Notes: Sharks’ Nieto Expects To Be Out 3-4 Weeks With Broken Knuckle

SAN JOSE — If the doctors are right, Matt Nieto should be healthy enough to rejoin the Sharks lineup just in time for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Nieto broke the high knuckle on the index finger in his right hand while blocking a Michael Stone shot in the Sharks game against the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday and, as a result, he isn’t getting a strong enough grip on his stick to play right now.

Nevertheless, Nieto is optimistic that he’ll be back in time for the playoffs, which kick off on April 13, nearly four weeks after he suffered the injury.

“I’ve just been told that the timeframe is three to four weeks, so I’m going to do everything I can and I’m positive that I’ll be ready [for the playoffs],” he said.

Nieto also battled a hand injury related to blocking a shot during his rookie year in 2013-14.

While the 23-year-old forward is disappointed he won’t be able to help his team down the stretch, he’s grateful that the injury isn’t worse and he’ll be able to stay conditioned as he recovers.

“That’s a good thing, I’ll be able to keep my legs in shape, still skate, still do lower body,” Nieto said. “I’m only restricted from some things.”

With Nieto in the press box on Saturday, Tommy Wingels returned to the ice after missing 12 games with a left-shoulder injury and two games as a healthy scratch, so the team has the depth to absorb the loss for the time being.

“It’s awesome. Our depth goes a long way,” Nieto said. “It was nice to see Tommy back out there yesterday. He looked great. That’s a huge key for us moving forward.”

Rolling Three Pairs: Speaking of depth, the Sharks struggled earlier in the season when playing without a top-four defenseman, going 0-3 without Paul Martin in October, 1-1 without Justin Braun in November and 0-2-1 without Marc-Edouard Vlasic in December.

But they recorded a season-high 52 shots on goal against the New York Rangers Saturday afternoon in their first game without a top-four blue liner since Dec. 9.

While Dylan DeMelo deserves credit for stepping in and playing a solid game after sitting out 12-consecutive games with the Sharks, the team’s ability to roll all three pairings rather evenly also helped it absorb Vlasic’s loss against the Rangers.

Earlier in the season, when the Sharks suffered an injury on the blue line, Dillon jumped into a top-four role while the squad made due with some combination of DeMelo, Matt Tennyson or Mirco Mueller in the third pairing.

The top-four blue liners eat up most of the ice time while head coach Peter DeBoer hid the third pairing by limiting it to less than 12 minutes per game.

Against the Rangers, all six defensemen logged at least 16 minutes of ice time, and the even-strength workload was shared quite evenly. As usual, Brent Burns led the way with 18:53 of five-on-five ice time, Braun logged 17:32, Martin, 16:37, Polak, 16:35, DeMelo, 16:33 and Dillon skated for 15:58.

“It’s huge to have that depth at D,” center Chris Tierney said. “[Dillon and Polak] move up, DeMelo slides in, it’s pretty seamless.”

Sharing The Workload: For just the second time this season, the Sharks backup netminder will receive three starts in less than two weeks.

James Reimer will make his third start in 12 days when the Sharks take on the Arizona Coyotes at the SAP Center on Saturday, a reflection of head coach Peter DeBoer’s confidence in the team’s recent acquisition.

Former-backup Alex Stalock received just three starts over his last six-and-a-half weeks with the team. He started three games in an 11-day span between Halloween and Nov. 10, but after that, DeBoer appeared to be frustrated with him, giving him just six starts from Nov. 22 to Feb. 27.

Reimer, on the other hand, is taking advantage of every opportunity he receives with the Sharks. In three starts, he’s 2-1 with a 1.69 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage.

“He’s been great, I mean, this guy’s a starting goalie in the NHL,” DeBoer said. “That’s a great luxury to have.”

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