SAN JOSE - No Joe Thornton, no problem for the Sharks on Saturday as team teal came away with their third straight convincing win on home ice. In fact, each of San Jose’s last three wins have come at home and by 5-2 final scores.
However, with Thornton unavailable and San Jose coming off a two game road trip in which they were shutout twice, it was far from a sure thing that the scoring would pick up where it left off at home.
Fortunately for the Sharks, Tampa Bay was playing for the third time in four nights and didn’t seem as sharp as they have been early on this season. Coming into play on Saturday, the Lightning were sitting at 7-3-2, good enough for 16 points and a second-place spot in the Southeast division.
The Sharks, on the other hand, came into Saturday’s game just 5-5-1, but the fresh legs helped San Jose get off to a fast start.
Right from the get-go the Sharks showed a renewed offensive fervor as Logan Couture, who jumped up to the number one center spot in Thornton’s absence, got some quality chances early on.
Each member of the top line chipped in a goal Saturday night, the first coming from Patrick Marleau while short-handed mid-way through the first period. San Jose’s 44-goal scorer from a year ago intercepted an errant pass in the neutral zone and proceeded to take only a few strides before unleashing a blistering slap-shot from the top of the left circle that beat Tampa Bay netminder Mike Smith through the 5-hole.
While Tampa Bay was able to tie the score less than two minutes later on a nifty deflection goal by Martin St. Louis, Marleau quickly put the Sharks back on top with a power-play marker at 15:26.
This time around, the Sharks would be able to hold and build upon on Marleau’s goal thanks to a brilliant save by Antero Niittymaki in the final 30 seconds of the first period.
With the Sharks power-play yet again falling victim to a golden short-handed opportunity against, Niittymaki would have to answer the call when his former teammate and the NHL’s leading scorer Steven Stamkos sprung loose for a break away opportunity.
Stamkos attempted a quick fore-hand/back-hand move, but was turned away by the right pad of Niittymaki which left many wondering if the former Lightning netminder had a good idea of what to expect from his old teammate.
But when asked whether he knew what was coming on the breakaway, Niittymaki responded “Not really, I just waited to see what he was going to do” and when pushed about a general familiarity with the Lightning players, Niittymaki played it down saying “we get pretty good pre-scouts every game”.
Whether Niittymaki knew what to expect or not, the save on Stamkos built momentum going into the second period where the Sharks were able to extend their lead with goals from Dany Heatley and John McCarthy.
Heatley deposited a juicy rebound from right outside the crease off a shot from the half boards by Couture at 11:27 and McCarthy got the fourth line on the board with less than three minutes remaining in the middle period.
On most night’s, McCarthy’s goal would have essentially put the nail in the coffin when you consider Tampa Bay had just killed off a four minute high sticking penalty just a couple minutes prior.
Yet the Lightning didn’t go away easily even after mustering only 16 shots through the first two periods.
After Couture extended the Sharks lead to 5-1 with a re-direct off a Heatley wrister in the opening minute of the third, the Lightning started to pepper Niittymaki consistently for the first time all night.
Niittymaki ended up making 18 saves on 19 shots in the final frame, many of the difficult variety. Granted San Jose was sitting on a four goal but Niittymaki was up to the task all game long and was deservedly named the game’s first star.