In one of the most exhilarating regular season hockey games you will ever see, the San Jose Sharks knocked off the Pittsburgh Penguins in overtime Wednesday night, 3-2. With the win, San Jose takes over full possession of first-place in the pacific division and are now 14-2-1 in their last 17 games.
While the Penguins have been riddled with injuries, they still gave the scorching hot Sharks everything they can handle, including tying the score in the last minute of regulation to force the extra session. But in this battle of Western and Eastern powers, it was no surprise for the two highly competitive squads to combine for an entire 60 minutes of thoroughly entertaining hockey.
Pittsburgh came out strong early as the Sharks—who won 4-3 the previous night in Detroit—took a bit of time to find their legs. A miscue between the newly acquired Ian White and defense partner Niclas Wallin led to the Penguins opening the scoring early in the first. White’s reverse pass behind his own net was out of Wallin’s reach and went up around the boards where Pittsburgh defenseman Deryk Engelland was able to intercept near the point and fire a shot to the net. The puck would carom out to Matt Cooke whose wrist shot would be stopped by Antti Niemi’s right pad but Tyler Kennedy buried the rebound into the empty side.
Fortunately for the Sharks, the Penguins held true to form—being the most penalized team in the league–and they received the only two power-plays of the period. While they would come up empty on both of the attempts, it helped get the momentum back on their side, as the Sharks finished the period out-shooting the Penguins 11-6 despite being down a goal.
And wouldn’t you know it, Pittsburgh would be right back on the penalty kill early in the second and this time around, the third time was a charm for the Sharks. A quality pinch by defenseman Jason Demers got the puck down low to the white-hot Devin Setoguchi behind the Penguins net. Setoguchi—who had five goals in the previous two games–then passed out the opposite side to a wide-open Couture who banged home a one-timer from the top of the left circle.
His 25th goal of the season, which beat Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury high over the glove side, ties Couture with former Shark Pat Falloon for the San Jose record for goals by a rookie. Couture had previously been goal-less in his last seven games going into Wednesday’s contest but had picked up six assists during the span, including back-t0-back two assist efforts against Colorado and Detroit.
From then on, the momentum would see-saw back and forth as the Penguins would carry the play for a few minutes before the Sharks finished off the period with some late chances of their own. It would be the only period in which the Sharks were not able to out-shoot the Penguins as both teams tallied nine in the period.
In the third, the Sharks would take their first lead of the game at 5:28 when Patrick Marleau’s hustle forced a loose puck free to linemate Dany Heatley behind the Penguins net. Heatley then chipped the puck back to Marleau who quickly took it to the front of the net where he jammed it home through Fleury’s five-hole.
As the final 20 minutes progressed, it felt as if the 2-1 score might hold up as both Niemi and Fleury had been playing phenomenal all game long. Fleury had robbed Setoguchi midway through the second with a great push across, one of the more brilliant of his 35 saves for the game. In fact, if it weren’t for Fleury the Sharks could have easily had four or five goals during regulation.
However, Niemi was equally impressive at the other end. The Finnish netminder didn’t see the same amount of rubber thrown his way but finished with 24 saves on 26 shots including a huge glove save late in the third off Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang. While short-handed, Joe Thornton tried to make a quick change but the Penguins took advantage of the extra space and a quick pass just inside the blue-line from the far left side to the right wing found a wide open Letang. The Penguins defenseman skated in on Niemi and uncorked a hard wrist shot from a prime scoring spot right in the low slot but Niemi stoned him with the glove.
There was still seven minutes left to play but a save like that made it seem like it just wasn’t in the cards for the Penguins to tie the game. But, Fleury was keeping them in the game with impressive saves off Joe Pavelski and Kyle Wellwood, stopping a second and third chance respectively by each after an original shot by Torrey Mitchell had been padded away into a dangerous area right in front.
As the time ticked down, the Sharks looked poised to hold onto the win. This especially seemed the case when Letang’s stick snapped at the offensive blue-line with a little over a minute left. Couture subsequently took the puck away and skated through the neutral zone but inexplicably shot from just over the red line. Even though he had extra time to skate closer for a better shot with Letang stickless, the rookie tried for the long attempt but his shot was off target from the release.
This mis-step gave Pittsburgh new life and they would take advantage. After gaining control inside the Sharks zone, a nice pass by Cooke from behind the net to Jordan Staal at the side gave the Penguins a good look at goal. Staal took a quick shot that ended up squeezing through Niemi’s gear and clanging off the near post before dropping over to other side where Kennedy slammed it home for his second goal on the night.
The final 50 seconds would then tick harmlessly off the clock and these two teams had each earned a point in what had already been an unbelievably competitive contest. Now all that was left to be decided was the final point and the overtime session mirrored the back and forth action of regulation.
Pittsburgh controlled the play for the first few minutes before Marleau was sent on a breakaway by Joe Thornton who had picked the pocket of newly acquired defenseman Matt Niskanen in the neutral zone. Marleau skated in on his fore-hand and tried to go back-hand high but Fleury came up with the huge glove stop to keep the game going.
Yet the Sharks had seized momentum and kept peppering Fleury in the final minute. With 16 seconds remaining, Sharks defenseman Jason Demers led a three-on-two-rush with Marleau and Couture. The three combined to set up a great chance by Couture in prime scoring position but the rookie fanned on the glorious look from in front.
The chaotic sequence though led to a Pittsburgh defense that was scrambling to clear the puck. The poor clearing attempt would be kept in at the point by Marc-Edouard Vlasic who uncranked a hard slap shot that got through to the net. Couture would then get a touch on it before Marleau chipped it up over Fleury for the game-winner with just four seconds remaining.
While the goals get the spotlight, and both Marleau and Kennedy were amongst the three stars listed, the netminders were the stars of the game and Jordan Staal was excellent for the Penguins. Staal posted an absurd 29:04 in ice time for a forward (overtime or no overtime), picked up an assist and was a plus one.
One could argue the first star should have been Fleury, with Staal the second and Niemi the third.
But, all that matters to the teams involved is the two points and the Sharks once again got just enough scoring to earn the impressive road victory.