SAN JOSE -– Two things had to happen for the Sharks to get past the Nashville Predators on Thursday night at SAP Center.
One, they had to win the special teams battle, considering the Predators entered as the second-best NHL team at even strength, and two, Antti Niemi had to remain on top of his game.
Both happened, and the result was a 2-0 win, their fourth in the last five games to remain in the thick of the playoff race.
Tomas Hertl’s power-play goal was the only scoring until a late empty netter.
After three miserable advantages in which the Sharks had just two shots on goal, coach Todd McLellan sent out his second unit after Mattias Ekholm’s slash on Joe Pavelski. Chris Tierney won a faceoff to Justin Braun, Braun got his slap shot through to Pekka Rinne, and Hertl was there to slip in a backhand on the rebound at 16:41.
Antti Niemi earned his fifth shutout of the season, and second in two home games against Nashville, making 35 saves.
Niemi wasn’t tested often through two periods, but made a sliding diving stop on Craig Smith with 11:30 to go in the second after a bad line change allowed the Predators to gain possession of the puck in the offensive zone.
He made some key stops came after Patrick Marleau’s holding penalty at 7:26 of the third period gave Nashville its first power play. Niemi ate up a Smith wrist shot from the circle, freezing the puck, and later batted away a powerful Roman Josi blast after the Preds’ leading scorer among defensemen was left open.
The shutout was preserved with 1:50 to go in regulation, when he denied Mike Fisher on a partial breakaway with the Predators shorthanded.
Tommy Wingels’ empty-net, power play goal at 19:01 capped the scoring.
The Sharks (34-26-8, 76 points) are three points behind the Los Angeles Kings for the second and final Wild Card spot. The Kings, who beat Vancouver on Thursday night, have one game in hand.
An apparent Hertl goal in the first period was waved off. Tierney set up the sophomore in front of the net, and although the puck bounced in, the referee ruled that Hertl came into incidental contact with Rinne midway through the opening frame. Mike Santorelli appeared to aid Hertl’s plowing into Rinne with a cross-check from behind.
The Sharks have won just three games in which their five leading scorers have not scored a goal, including Monday’s 2-1 shootout win over Pittsburgh.
San Jose improved to 11-4-1 against the Central Division, while the Predators fell to 11-4-2 against the Pacific.
The Sharks finished 2-for-5 on the power play.
Hertl’s goal was the first power-play goal by the Sharks’ second unit since Jan. 10, when Melker Karlsson had one against the Rangers. It was Hertl’s second power-play goal, and first since Nov. 1 vs. the Islanders.
Nashville was 0-for-2. San Jose has killed off seven of eight opponent power plays over the last four games.
Niemi improved to 8-6-3 in his career against Nashville, including two wins in two starts this season. He made 29 saves in a 2-0 shutout on Dec. 13.
Rinne played all three games against the Sharks and was 1-2, despite allowing just three total goals. San Jose’s 2-0 win on Dec. 13 included an empty-netter.
Tierney has four points in his last four games, including assists on both Sharks goals on Thursday.
Matt Irwin missed his third straight game with an upper body injury, but is close to a return.
The Sharks have just four home games remaining, and close out a four-game homestand with a rare afternoon tilt against Chicago on Saturday. They have split the season series with the Blackhawks, including a 2-0 shutout win on Jan. 31 at SAP Center in the most recent meeting.
After that, 10 of the final 13 games are on the road. A seven-game trip begins on Tuesday against a team the Sharks are currently chasing in Winnipeg.