By Ivan Makarov
SAN JOSE, CA — Every game matters for San Jose Sharks right now. With the string of poor results dating back to the start of February, they slid five points back out of the playoffs picture before their game on Monday night against Pittsburgh Penguins. The players knew it, and battled all night long like it was one of the last games of the season. Although it took winning a skills competition at the end, San Jose Sharks earned huge two points as they won 2-1 in a very close contest.
While they wouldn’t have won without a key goal in the first third of the game, the first star of the night was no doubt San Jose night minder Antti Niemi who stopped multiple sure scoring chances both during regulation and in the overtime, made 39 saves and was then brilliant in the shootout. He didn’t seem to mind that they were playing one of the best road team in the NHL in the Penguins (who lost just eight times so far this season), being lead by two of the three best players in the league in Sidney Crosby. Niemi rose to the occasion and played one of his best games of the season.
But it all started in the first period, when Sharks opened the scoring in the game with less than a minute left in the period. Ben Smith stole the puck away from Penguins defense behind their goal. The puck ended on Chris Tierney’s stick and he quickly found Matt Nieto just outside the crease. Nieto one timed it straight into the net, scoring his seventh goal of the season.
But as time went on, it was the Penguins who looked like a better team. They had more scoring chances, more shots on goal, and looked like a team more in sync for most of the night. They finally scored a goal in the third period. Sidney Crosby picked up the puck in the central zone, and took off on the wing, entering the zone. His speed proved to be too much for the Sharks defense, and Crosby put it inside the net with a powerful backhand shot. After playing in San Jose five times before, it was in the sixth game that Crosby broke through and scored in this arena.
Penguins continued to push (they would end the night outshooting the Sharks 40-30), but Niemi was stellar and steady in front of the net, reading the plays and making huge saves.
Visiting team almost ended it all with 5 seconds left in the overtime when Derrick Pouliot had a great open chance on goal. He shot the puck well, but it bounced off the goal post, capping off an exciting overtime that saw both teams creating good chances.
Sharks didn’t fare so well in the shootouts this season (going 2-4), but they did prevail this time. Melker Karlsson was close to ending it all scoring on the third Sharks attempt, but Kris Letang evened out the score. Tommy Wingels went on to score in the eighth round and Niemi made one more big save on the night, stopping Steve Downie, and earning an extra point for the Sharks.
San Jose Sharks continue go dominate the Penguins, with Pittsburgh’s last win in regulation dating all the way back to 1997.
San Jose still has quite a hill to climb to get back into the playoffs picture, but the win helped them to stay in the game. The next big game is on Thursday when they face another powerhouse, the visiting Nashville Predators.