Sharks rally behind Niemi and Thornton, grab seventh straight win

Earlier today, Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson made an exception to his self imposed rule of not negotiating contracts mid-season, signing soon to be free agent goaltender Antti Niemi to a four-year, $15.2MM extension that secures him as San Jose's starter for the foreseeable future.

If tonight's play was any indication, Niemi will be giving Doug Wilson his money's worth.

Niemi was awarded the game's first star honor, stopping 18 of the 19 shots he faced tonight. The effort was simply a continuation of the solid play he's turned in since the beginning of 2011. He boasts a .935 save percentage over that time frame, a stretch that is one of the most impressive by a San Jose netminder in the team's 20 year history.

"It's going to be tight all year long from now on," Niemi said following the victory. "There are going to be more of these types of games, and these are the huge points you want. [The games] where you are tied, or even losing, in the third and find a way to come back."

Despite Niemi's solid play, the Sharks were in danger of going pointless for the first time in two weeks. The Sharks were in control almost the entire game; the admittedly inferior Avalanche found play in their zone for much of the game and generated most of their opportunities on the rush. Still, they were the team to strike first, scoring on the power play goal from Erik Johnson early in the third frame.

Brian Elliot,  who was acquired recently by the Avalanche for playoff hero Craig Anderson, kept the Sharks at bay for much of the game, which included four power play opportunities for San Jose. Elliot made 29 saves in regulation to go with an additional 28 shots blocked by his team, not including a wrist shot by Joe Pavelski which rang off the crossbar halfway through the period. Still, as was the case in Calgary, San Jose was able to tie the game with just under three minutes to play.

Jason Demers shot a puck from the point, which was redirected from Thornton across the crease and into the far side of the net. It was a play that is hard to describe in text, but if you've ever witnessed the nasty deflection physics engine of NHL 11, it might paint a clearer picture. Ultimately, the play earned San Jose at least a point and sent the game to overtime.

"We challenged our big guys between periods that they have to step up and lead. Jumbo ended up getting that tying goal," Todd McLellan said. "It took that long. We told them the rule-maker allows us 60 minutes to find one at least. We used almost the full 60. It was nice to see them step up."

Overtime ended up looking similar to regulation; the ice conditions made for a sloppy game throughout. Although San Jose had their chances, the Sharks looked to the shootout for the second straight. As was the story in Calgary, Ryane Clowe notched the winner while Antti Niemi was again perfect in the skills competition. 

And once again, Clowe went to the forehand.

"I was thinking of probably going backhand," Clowe said, referencing his standard shootout move. "I looked up and saw he might have been leaning a little bit to the glove side so I decided to go low blocker. That's always a tough save for the goalie anyway."

San Jose's seventh win in a row, coupled with Phoenix's loss to Dallas tonight, leaves the Sharks with a four point lead in the Pacific Division with a game in hand over the Coyotes.

And while by no means a comfortable margin, you get the feeling that the Sharks are starting to feel like this Division is theirs to lose.

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