Nikolai Knyzhov’s emotional return lifts San Jose Sharks

There were enough feel-good stories to go around for the San Jose Sharks in their 3-2 overtime win over the Winnipeg Jets. None was better than Nikolai Knyzhov’s return to the NHL.

Following a string of injuries, surgeries, and setbacks over the previous 22 months, Knyzhov on Monday, one day after he was recalled from the AHL, played his first game with the Sharks since May 12, 2021, a stretch of 663 days.

“Really happy for Nik,” Sharks captain Logan Couture told NBC Sports California after he scored the overtime winner. “He’s had a lot of surgeries. He’s dealt with a lot just to mentally stay engaged and to just continue to chase his dream of getting back to play in the NHL. It’s a heck of a story.”

Knyzhov’s coaches and teammates have been impressed with his positive attitude and perseverance throughout a seemingly endless battle with adversity, particularly in recent months as he worked his way back from the torn Achilles tendon he suffered last offseason.

To see Knyzhov back gave everyone in teal a boost.

“When he was around the rink during these tough times, he always had a smile on his face,” Couture said. “He always was trying to cheer everyone else up. So, he’s a guy that you really pull for and cheer for. He’s got a lot of supporters in that dressing room. Pretty proud of him.”

Against the Jets, the Sharks also came away impressed with Knyzhov’s game. As Erik Karlsson’s defense partner once again, Knyzhov, listed at 6-foot-3 and 222 pounds, had over 14 minutes of ice time and played 2:50 while the Sharks were shorthanded.

“He looked really good. He looked like a pro, looks like an NHLer,” Sharks coach David Quinn said of Knyzhov. “He’s got the size. He’s fluid, pretty good poise with the puck. Really liked what I saw tonight.”

“Incredible,” Sharks goalie James Reimer said. “To go that long without playing (an NHL) game and to go through the adversity he did, it was just a huge boost for our club. I never even played with him until tonight. I didn’t even know what he was capable of.

“But I know what kind of guy he is and how hard he works, and I know the setbacks he’s had. This is one of those nights where it’s a really good feeling for the group. You’re so happy for (Knyzhov).”

Knyzhov was one of the few bright spots for the Sharks during the 2020-2021 season. Amid some reported tension in the Sharks’ locker room, Knyzhov became the team’s top rookie, earning enough of the then-coaching staff’s trust to play alongside Karlsson for the second half of the season.

But after that season, Knyzhov discovered he needed sports hernia surgery on his left side. After that procedure, an MRI revealed that Knyzhov also needed surgery to repair adductor muscles that had been torn off the bone, a chronic injury that he was told happened over time.

An ensuing bone infection required two more cleaning procedures and for him to be on an antibiotic IV drip for weeks.

After Knyzhov recovered from the adductor surgery, it was determined that he needed sports hernia surgery on his right side. Unfortunately, once that healed, the torn Achilles tendon took place during off-season training.

No wonder he became emotional as he went through pregame warmups Monday, taking a moment to reflect on his journey back as he, “let it sink in, sat there, stretched out, looked at the arena.

“Then once we got out there for the first period, I was just ready to play. There was nothing else but just excitement.”

Knyzhov was taking the lineup spot of Radim Simek, who was injured in Saturday’s home game against the Washington Capitals.

Knyzhov said the coaches’ message to him was, “just go out there and have fun and relax. It’s my first game in a while. No pressure.

“Thanks to all the coaches in the whole organization for being patient with me and giving me this opportunity to come back and prove myself once again.”

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