Goaltenders duke it out and Niemi comes out on top as Sharks win 2-1 in Vancouver
In the first period the story was Antti Niemi, who managed to keep San Jose down by just a marker despite facing seventeen shots from quality scoring areas. In the second period Roberto Luongo returned the favor, stopping a massive twenty four out of twenty five shots in the period to help Vancouver limp their way into the final frame with the score tied.
And in the third, both netminders were at their best as San Jose and Vancouver flew up and down the ice desperate to find the winning marker. Although it wouldn't come, it wasn't for a lack of effort-- there was a distinct sense of desperation from both teams, resulting in one of the most exciting hockey games you will see this season.
Coming into tonight we mentioned how important this game was for the Sharks on a multitude of levels. The fact that the Canucks had the Sharks number in their two previous games was important, as well as the fact that consistency has been an issue for this team all season long. Although the Sharks had broken a season-high six game losing streak last week by reeling off wins against St. Louis and Phoenix, no test for the club was greater than going up against one of the Western Conference elite.
It's safe to say they rose to the challenge.
Logan Couture's goal in the second period to knot the game at one was a brilliant individual effort that saw him strip the puck away from Christian Ehrhoff in the offensive zone, put the puck on net for an initial shot, and capitalize on the rebound by elevating a backhander from in tight. Although Couture has impressed beyond what was expected of him already this season, plays like that make you truly appreciate what a special player San Jose has on their hands. Expect to see that goal on Sharks highlight videos in the coming years, as well as on the NHL's Plays of the Week compilation next Monday.
Antti Niemi also burned bright tonight, continuing his stellar play in the month of January. His rebound control, which caused some issues for him throughout the early part of the season, have slowly and steadily improved as the year has wore along. That was on full display tonight, with a multitude of Vancouver shots being gobbled up and frozen without a second chance opportunity. There's no doubt he was the Sharks player of the game this evening.
All in all the team played well, with key contributors having solid nights. Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, and Joe Thornton were all flying across the ice, and the blueline managed to clamp down and limit scoring opportunities after a tumultuous first period. New additions Ben Eager and Kyle Wellwood were serviceable. Eager managed only 7:09 in ice time but added some physicality to the game, but expect him to play fourth line minutes from here on out. Wellwood was a factor on some shifts, displaying some good puck sense and passing ability-- further acclimation to the team will hopefully result in more than one shot on net as his stint in San Jose continues.
All in all, tonight was huge win for a Sharks team that needed one against a top-tier opponent. Although one should likely never wish for a date with the Canucks in the first round, the action tonight (as well as the game in San Jose on January 3rd) proved that these two teams will generate a compelling brand of hockey. Coupled with the physicality we've seen over the years between the two teams that has produced some bad blood, it's a matchup that boasts a lot of intrigue.
We're getting ahead of ourselves, of course. San Jose still lies outside of the Western Conference top eight, and although things have managed to turn the corner recently, sustained success is something that the Sharks have had issues with this year.
Tonight, they took a big step forward to erasing those doubts.