DETROIT – As important as Logan Couture is to the Sharks on the ice, as his nimble third period power play goal demonstrated, the third-year center is becoming just as important a piece to his team in the locker room.
That’s saying a lot for a guy that added a shootout conversion to go with his 16th goal of the season, fired a game-high five shots on net, and was 10-2 in the faceoff circle in San Jose’s significant 3-2 win over Detroit on Thursday night at Joe Louis Arena.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Sharks 3, Red Wings 2 (SO)]
Head coach Todd McLellan revealed after the game that Couture is now often included in discussions with the rest of the team’s leaders. On a club that includes veterans like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Dan Boyle, that says a ton about how the coaching staff and organization values its 24-year-old rising star.
“He gets the message, and spreads it quite well,” McLellan said.
Getting back on the ice, Couture tied the game at 2-2 in the third period, when he gobbled up the rebound of a Thornton power play shot and roofed it with a no-look backhander over a fallen Jimmy Howard. That allowed the Sharks to eventually win in the shootout, when Couture answered Pavel Datsyuk’s goal on the first attempt and Patrick Marleau put it away as the final shooter.
“Very, very determined, and I think he’s one of the top players in the league right now. Maybe when it’s all said and done he was probably playing in front of the Olympic coach here coming down the stretch, and maybe he’s trying to make a point,” McLellan said, referring to the Red Wings’ Mike Babcock, who led Team Canada to the Gold Medal in 2010.
The game-tying goal showcased Couture’s patience and soft hands.
“I was able to find the rebound kind of falling forward,” Couture said. “I know Howard’s going to be on his stomach there, pads on the ice, so I was able to get it upstairs.”
Thornton said: “From in close like that on the backhand, it’s a world-class goal.”
Of course, it wasn’t all Couture, as Marleau scored a first period shorthanded goal on a brilliant set up by Joe Pavelski to go with his shootout winner, and Antti Niemi was stellar in both regulation and the tiebreaker.
The Sharks responded from one of their worst outings of the season in Columbus on Tuesday when they were shut out by the Blue Jackets, 4-0. They improved to 1-1 on their four-game road trip, and ended a modest two-game losing streak.
In Columbus, McLellan was about as angry as he had been after any defeat. On Thursday, he was the polar opposite after his team won for the eighth time in the last 10 against Detroit (8-1-1) and overall (also 8-1-1).
“I’m proud of the guys because they didn’t obviously perform very well in Columbus,” he said. “The bounce back game here in a tough building to play, that was a hell of a game by both teams. Goaltending, special teams, a lot of battles fought along the boards and net front. A good night for us to play.”
Thornton ended a personal three-game scoreless streak, after he was benched for long portions of the game in Columbus. His 10 minutes and 30 seconds of ice time was the lowest in his Sharks career.
“We stunk in Columbus, and tonight we got back to the way we were winning and competing. Good game tonight for everybody,” said Thornton, who has a league-leading 17 power play assists.
Niemi allowed goals to Justin Abdelkader in the second and Jakub Kindl on the power play early in the third, but the win was probably one of his best performances. His highlight reel stop of Cory Emmerton in the second period momentarily preserved the Sharks’ 1-0 lead, and he stopped Detroit’s Gustav Nyquist when the shootout was tied at a goal apiece.
Nyquist attempted a spin-o-rama, but Niemi somehow kicked his left pad out far enough to stop it and give Marleau the opportunity to end it.
“It’s hard, because I feel like he’s almost trying to push me away, too,” Niemi said. “He shouldn’t be able to push me and go the other way with the puck, so I just tried to reach there with my leg. I didn’t even see the puck, it was behind him.”
For Niemi, it was his 20th win, and he’s tied with three other goaltenders for the league lead in that category.
“He was tremendous, and he’s played like that a lot,” McLellan said. “Some of the saves he made were incredible. The shootout save on the spin-o-rama…he was flat out excellent.”
The Sharks’ biggest weakness throughout their struggles on the road – they improved to just 7-11-2 away from HP Pavilion – was the power play. Entering the game with Detroit, the Sharks were just 5-for-66 in the last 17 games away from home (7.6 percent).
They didn’t look very good on their first three attempts, either, but finally came through at the most important moment in the game in the third period.
Thornton said: “We needed the goal in the third and got it back, and ended up winning the game. When the power play’s on, we’ve got a good team.”
“They got a power play goal, so we wanted to get one, too,” Couture said, referring to Kindl's goal. “We responded, and it was the difference between getting to overtime and not.”
They responded courtesy of the guy whose role on the team continues to get bigger and bigger.
“For my money, he can play on our team any day,” McLellan said of Couture.