Niemi Leads Sharks Over Coyotes

After breaking their six game losing streak (all in regulation) at home Saturday against the St. Louis Blues, the San Jose Sharks faced one of those potentially awkward trap games on Monday’s Martin Luther King holiday. Not only were the Sharks facing a tough road test against the Phoenix Coyotes, but the odd 1 p.m. Pacific start time and the fact the player’s dads were on the trip to Arizona meant some abnormalities were in store.

Fortunately for San Jose, brilliant netminding from Antti Niemi and a goal each from the “big three” during Patrick Marleau’s 1,000th NHL regular season game paved the way for a 4-2 victory over their division rivals.

Marleau, the man of the hour before the game, opened the scoring early, putting his squad ahead 1-0 at the 3:45 mark of the first period. Marleau’s quick wrist shot from right next to the left wing boards and right above the goal-line somehow found it’s way over the catching shoulder of Phoenix goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov.

Getting to Phoenix’s star netminder early would prove crucial. Not only were the Coyotes riding a four-game win streak heading into the contest, but Bryzgalov had been particularly hot over that span. Four games, four wins and a .936 save percentage for Bryzgalov, arguably a top-five netminder in the NHL.

And after the Sharks opened the scoring, the Coyotes responded with a goal from Derek Morris at 12:09 of the first. San Jose was scrambling in their own zone as the puck got fired around to the point where Morris’ intended shot-pass for Eric Belanger ricocheted off Shark defenseman Kent Huskins skate and past Niemi.

Furthermore, while Dany Heatley had given the Sharks back the one-goal lead at 4:03 of the second with another even strength goal (which the Sharks haven’t been getting enough of this season) his high-sticking penalty at the 9:11 mark gave Phoenix a four minute power-play. While the Coyotes didn’t score during the extended power-play, the fact the Sharks already had two goals in the back of the Coyotes net which was a much different way of playing than during the six game losing streak.

Over those six games the Sharks had failed to score a first period goal in five of the six and were completely shutout twice during the streak. Yet on Monday, they had two goals in just under 25 minutes of action and thankfully Niemi was imitating  a stone wall during Heatley’s double minor. Phoenix fired away seven shots with Heatley in the box and each at-least five of the seven were legitimate scoring chances but Niemi shut the door time and time again.

Last year’s Stanley Cup winning netminder struggled to start the year after coming over from Chicago. Although early on he did seem to get the short end of the stick in regards to defensive efforts from the team in front of him. But after just a 1-3 mark and a.857 save percentage in October, Niemi has gotten better and better with each month.

In November Niemi went 2-2-1 with a .890 save percentage (which aside from a defensive collapse in a 6-1 loss to Vancouver would have been much better).

During December Niemi went 5-4-1, picked up his first shutout as a Shark and finished the month with a .918 save percentage. And finally so far in January Niemi has gone just 3-4-0 (thanks to the team’s six game skid) but with a studly .936 save percentage. Against Phoenix, Niemi turned away 34 of 36 shots for the game and his brilliance was rewarded at the other end with four goals by his teammates for the second straight game.

Rookie Logan Couture added his 20th of the year on an unbelievably pretty tic-tac-toe power-play passing between Heatley and Dan Boyle, finished off by Couture. The power-play tally came just 2:41 remaining in the second as the Sharks skated into the final intermission with a two-goal ;ead.

Once again, the Coyotes pulled within one after Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s slap-shot from the left circle beat Niemi at the 12:01 mark of the third but the Sharks held on.

Niemi made another flurry of impressive saves when the Coyotes pulled Bryzgalov for an extra skater for the last minute and change and Joe Thornton added an empty netter to seal the deal. However, Thornton’s goal wasn’t your run-of-the-mill-typical unassisted empty net goal. With the puck cleared into the Phoenix zone, Marleau’s pressure of the Phoenix defender forced a bad pass that Thornton was able to break up with his long reach. Thornton was then clear to slide the puck home into the gaping net for the game-icing tally with 48 seconds left.

While it wasn’t the sexiest goal by virtue of it being an empty  netter, the hustle and forcing of the play by the two Sharks’ forwards was exactly the kind of thing San Jose wasn’t doing during their losing streak. GM Doug Wilson called his team “inconsistent and reactive”  in his assessment of the entire season during the six game skid but the empty net goal by Thornton was the exact opposite style of play. Marleau and Thornton were being active and forced the issue, creating the goal.

With the victory the Sharks climb up to the ninth spot in the Western Conference and pull within four points of the fourth place Coyotes. Had Monday’s outcome been flip flopped, San Jose would haven fall eight points behind Phoenix and would have remained in 11th.

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