SAN JOSE, USA – Teenage Czech forward Tomas Hertl of the San Jose Sharks put the entire hockey world on notice with a stunning four-goal performance in a 9-2 home win over the New York Rangers on 8 October.
It wasn’t merely that the 19-year-old rookie went on a scoring spree in just his third NHL game. It was the stylish way this Slavia Prague product capitalized on his 11 minutes and 12 seconds of ice time.
“This is a dream,” said Hertl. “I am happy. It was a big game.”
After chasing Olympic gold medalist and Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist from the New York net with the 4-1 goal at 9:19 of the second period, Hertl’s confidence soared.
His second marker came on a beautiful breakaway dangle set up by linemate Joe Thornton just over three minutes later. When he completed the hat trick against Martin Biron on a spinaround slapper in front midway through the third, his mother, watching in a teal Sharks jersey, was in tears.
Yet the fourth goal is what’ll have players, coaches, fans and media alike buzzing for days.
Hertl got around New York defenceman Michael del Zotto, swooped in on Biron from the left side, tucked the puck back between his legs and beat the veteran netminder high to the stick side. The skill level was unbelievable. This is a move few players would dare to try in a shootout, let alone a game situation, even if they practice it regularly, as Hertl does.
The outburst tied Owen Nolan’s franchise record (set December 19, 1995) for most goals in one game. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Hertl (19 years, 330 days) also became the fourth-youngest player in NHL history to get four or more goals in a game. The most recent comparable instance was a four-goal game by Jimmy Carson (19 years, 254 days) for Los Angeles versus Calgary on 20 March, 1988.
Hertl now has a whopping six goals in his first three games. The first two came in a 4-1 win over Phoenix on October 5. Coach Todd McLellan is happy with his decision to place the 188-cm, 95-kg Prague native on the top line with Thornton and Brent Burns.
“I’m not sure he even realizes where he is,” said McLellan. “He’s a passionate young man and he’s playing freely.”
Naturally, the 2012 first-round pick (17th overall) can’t be expected to maintain this blistering pace over an 82-game schedule. (Of course, Sharks fans are salivating at the idea, considering their club has been a Stanley Cup contender for the entire new millennium but has yet to fulfill its promise.)
Still, Hertl’s early NHL prowess could have big implications for the Czech national team, which could use some fresh young talent with the Sochi Olympics just around the corner.
His success isn’t a fluke.
Rather than trying his luck in Canadian junior hockey, as many teenage Czech players do nowadays, he stayed home to develop with Slavia Prague until he was ready to jump straight to the NHL. That decision has paid off.
Hertl has gotten the chance to represent his country repeatedly. He played at the IIHF U18 World Championship in 2011. He then put up 10 points in 12 games with the last two Czech World U20 teams, both of which ended up in fifth place.
Coming off an impressive 18-goal, 12-assist campaign with Slavia Prague last season, Hertl was invited to play for the Czech team at the 2013 World Championship. Even though he was held pointless in Stockholm, he clearly benefited from seeing top-line duty alongside Jakub Voracek and Jiri Hudler.
His idol is fellow countryman and Triple Gold Club member Jaromir Jagr. With his powerful physique, Hertl has even reaped some early comparisons to the eighth-highest scorer in NHL history.
“It’s really a nice feeling, but I think Jaromir Jagr is on another level,” Hertl told the San Jose Mercury-News recently. “It’s a long way for me to be like Jaromir Jagr. He is a Czech hockey legend.”
Fair enough. But then again, every legend has to start everywhere.