Young Sharks center Chris Tierney hasn't shied away from tough matchups

ByPierre LeBrun ESPN logo
Tuesday, June 7, 2016

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Before the Stanley Cup finals began, Evgeni Malkin couldn't have picked Chris Tierney out of a police lineup.

Asked before Game 1 what he knew about the San Jose Sharks center, the Pittsburgh Penguins star Malkin didn't try to pretend.

"Not much," Malkin said with a faint chuckle. "I'm not watching San Jose during the season because they play out west. It's a different time. But I watch highlights. All four lines are tough with San Jose. They play good. They play so fast, so tight against you.''

Certainly, after a Sharks victory Saturday that made the series 2-1 heading into Game 4 on Monday night in San Jose, Malkin knows who Tierney is now. In fact, his respect for the 21-year-old -- who many observers figured would provide a matchup the Penguins could take advantage of -- has likely grown with each game.

Of course, that's exactly what many people also thought before the Sharks faced the St. Louis Bluesin the Western Conference finals. How could Tierney match up against either Jori Lehtera or Paul Stastny? Surely that was a matchup the Sharks would lose. But Tierney held his own.

"He plays through people,'' Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said via text Sunday. "Really surprised us. He looks light but plays heavy at the puck, wins a lot of puck battles. So they are able to stay in forecheck mode longer.''

If the Blues were surprised, Max Domi was not. The Arizona Coyotes forward was a linemate of Tierney's with the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights, and the two remain best friends today.

"I was taking Snapchats last night of when [Tierney] snapped a draw back and beat Malkin,'' Domi said over the phone Sunday, noting that he sent the snaps to a few former London teammates. "It's cool to see. He's going to continue to grow as a player for sure. You know he can find a way to play against those guys and find a way to help his team. He's been a huge part of that San Jose team all year.''

As for that narrative during the past two rounds, that Tierney might provide the matchup edge for the opposing team? Well, the native of Keswick, Ontario, used it as motivation.

"Whenever you go against elite centers on other teams, you want to prove it to yourself and prove it to your team that you can play against these guys," Tierney said Sunday, on the eve of Game 4. "It's a fun opportunity. I think you raise your game when you play against good players; you want to rise up to the challenge and have your best game every time you're on the ice against them. The challenge against those guys is nothing our line doesn't believe it can do."

Tierney picked up his eighth point of the playoffs with the assist on Joonas Donskoi's overtime winner Saturday night. Sharks coach Peter DeBoer's growing confidence in his young center has been more evident with each passing round, regardless of what outside critics were saying.

"We heard throughout the playoffs how they were going to expose our third line," DeBoer said. "[Tierney is] playing minutes against Malkin, against Sidney Crosby. He's been fantastic. He's gotten better and better as the season has gone. It hasn't been an easy road. He's had some bumps there, was down for a couple days. Healthy-scratched him a few times.

"I think he's learned to compete at this level on a nightly basis. All the skills are there. It's just been finding that consistent compete. He's got that now.''

And over time, it's likely the Sharks will see more offense from Tierney, who was San Jose's second-round pick, taken 55th overall, in the 2012 draft. After all, he put up 40 goals in 67 games in his final season of junior hockey while playing alongside Domi with London in 2014-15.

"He was unbelievable back then. We always knew how good he was," Domi said. "For whatever reason, he's flown under the radar, and I don't know why. He does everything. He can play power play, he can kill penalties, he takes faceoffs, he can play against other teams' top lines. He's an unbelievable playmaker too. He's got a lot on his game that, for whatever reason, some people don't identify right away.''

Tierney is also growing more confident in holding onto the puck.

"When I first came [into the league], it was just about not making mistakes," Tierney said. "I was probably a little afraid of making mistakes and didn't want to handle it too much. Now I feel pretty comfortable and just play my game. I want the puck, versus just chipping it out all the time. It's a little different now.''

His game can be reminiscent of a young Logan Couture, when Couture was first called up and used primarily as a defensive player before growing into a two-way stud.

Tierney's eyes lit up when asked about that comparison.

"He's a pretty good player to look up to," Tierney said. "He's an elite player in this league, and you see what he's doing in these playoffs. You can only hope you can evolve into a player like that. Everyone has their own identity, but he's definitely a guy I try to model my game after.''

Couture already sees in Tierney a player who's not scared to have an impact in these playoffs.

"He's skilled. He's got the confidence to make plays at a young age," Couture said. "He doesn't have any fear on the ice.''