By Mary Walsh
SAN JOSE– In a 2-0 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Sharks’ number 31 made 31 saves for the 31st shutout of his career, on January 31. In glaring obstruction of symmetry, it was not Antti Niemi’s 31st birthday, but he is 31. He was facing another goalie named Antti, Antti Raanta of the Chicago Blackhawks. Niemi faced nearly twice as many shots as Raanta did. Niemi was certainly the player of the game. Did Niemi feel like it was one of his best? “Not only having shutout, but the way I felt, patient and calm and relaxed, I felt really good,” Niemi said after the game.
Brent Burns praised Niemi’s performance Saturday and in general: “He’s real sturdy back there. We feel good when he’s there, we know he’s there to back us up if they get a good chance. He showed it tonight.”
All things considered, the rest of the team did pretty well despite missing Tommy Wingels and Justin Braun from their lineup. To defeat Chicago with those two out was a feat to be proud of regardless of how they got there.
It wasn’t always pretty but we committed to playing defense for the most part. You look at the shot clock, they lead the league in shots on goal, they shoot from everywhere. We knew we had to have a little bit of composure at times when they would get to roaming around in our end.
No matter who gets the most credit for the win, it was the third in a trio of impressive wins against formidable opponents. Continuing this season’s trend of playing very well against very tough teams, the Sharks don’t have much time to revel in this streak.
Monday, the Edmonton Oilers come to town to test the flip side of the Sharks’ pattern this season: how badly they have played against lower ranked teams. Sharks head coach Todd McLellan did not put it that way, but he did warn against celebrating this victory too much:
We play Edmonton [next] so we’ll see what happens. It’s great to have won games and we’ll enjoy tonight and I’m sure the guys’ll all watch the Superbowl but come Monday it’s right back to work. We’re not in a position to celebrate victories over first place teams. We’re in a position where we have to move on nightly and get better and prepare for the next opponent.
The Sharks took an early lead in a game that was, symbolically at least, very important. Two Chicago defenders tried to stop Melker Karlsson as he pounced on a rebound from a Matt Irwin shot, but he poked it by them and in. Assists went to Irwin and Joe Thornton.
The Blackhawks took the first penalty of the night, when Marion Hossa interfered with Brent Burns sufficiently to make Burns drop his stick. The Sharks did not score and actually had a bit of a scare at their own end when Jonathan Toews jumped on a turnover. Antti Niemi was stick-tapping to signal the end of the power play when he had to drop, mid-tap, to face the incoming Chicago captain.
Andrew Shaw and Joe Thornton received matching slashing penalties in the last minute of the period.
The period ended with the Sharks leading 1-0, and the teams tied on the shot clock with seven apiece.
The teams started the second period four on four, just as they ended the first.
Less than 30 seconds after the four on four expired, Matt Tennyson went to the box for high-sticking. The Blackhawks had the advantage by then in shots, taking the lead 13-7. The Sharks escaped unscathed from that penalty kill, actually showing more aggressiveness than they had four on four. The Blackhawks gave the power play back just after theirs expired, by taking a penalty for too many men on the ice. The Sharks power play held the zone for almost a minute before the vaunted Chicago penalty killers pushed them out. San Jose managed to get back on the attack but only for the final seconds of the penalty.
The Blackhawks added to their penalty lead at 12:58 of the period, when Michael Rozsival went to the box for hooking. Jonathan Toews had a complex short-handed chance, during which two Sharks defenders and Antti Niemi could not seem to get the puck away from him. Niemi, to his credit, stopped his shots repeatedly before the whistle blew. It isn’t clear why the whistle blew, and Toews objected heartily. The Blackhawks killed off the rest of the penalty without further incident.
The second period ended with the Sharks being outshot almost two to one.
The Blackhawks have been outscored badly in third periods lately. That bugaboo reared its head at the start of the third period Saturday, with the Sharks steadily closing the gap on the shot clock. In the last three minutes or so, the Blackhawks could hardly get across the red line without the Sharks stripping them of the puck. Finally, Chicago pulled their goalie. That got the Blackhawks across the red line but only long enough for the Sharks to take the puck away. Melker Karlsson saw Thornton and got the puck to him in the neutral zone. Thornton scored into the empty net to close the game out.
Of Melker Karlsson, Thornton said: “He just works hard every night. He’s a smart player, he made a great play to me, sprawling out. I love playing with him, we think the game the same way and it’s been fun.”
Matt Irwin led the Sharks in shots on goal with 4. John Scott led the team in hits with 6, Marc-Edouard Vlasic led the team in ice time with 24:01.
Jonathan Toews led the Blackhawks in shots with 5, Bryan Bickell led the team in hits with 4. Antti Raanta made 18 saves on 19 shots.
The Sharks next play on Monday night against the Edmonton Oilers.