SAN JOSE – Nashville came as advertised.
Arguably the biggest pleasant surprise in the NHL this season, goaltender Pekka Rinne was stellar in net, an ornery Shea Weber threw his weight around while manning the blue line, and at the Predators gave a hard push in the third period when trailing by a goal.
The Sharks won anyway, 2-0, extending their home winning streak to six games and jumping into third place in the Pacific Division with their seventh win in the last eight games.
The start was key.
San Jose outshot the Predators 18-7 in the first period, won 18 of 24 faceoffs, and the penalty killers came up huge in almost four minutes of shorthanded time. Oh, and Tomas Hertl’s goal 5:01 into the frame held up as the game-winner.
“We had a game plan, we all bought into it,” Todd McLellan said. “It wasn’t just 15 guys. It was all 20 that executed it, and for most of the night stuck with it. It was a good team win tonight. Everybody bought in and sacrificed.”
Joe Thornton, whose empty-net goal sealed the win, said: “Tonight was one of those nights where we just started fast and it won the game for us, probably.”
The Sharks kept up the pressure in the second period but couldn’t find a way to solve Rinne again, who was spectacular. He made a number of extraordinary saves, including on Pavelski on a Sharks power play, and later on Scott Hannan and Patrick Marleau’s consecutive tries with about six minutes to go in the middle frame.
The front-runner for the Vezina Trophy – and it’s probably not even close at this point – was still bettered by his countryman, though.
Antti Niemi was playing for the first time in one week after a minor injury sidelined him for three in a row. He made 29 saves, including 18 in the third period.
He admitted that he was getting a kick out of Rinne’s display about 180 feet away.
“It was slow in our end for two periods, and we had great chances so it was exciting to see him making those saves,” Niemi said. “It’s exciting playing one of the top goalies.”
Niemi won his fifth straight start.
“I thought he was very sharp when he needed to be,” McLellan said. “His week hasn’t been easy. He gets injured, misses some starts, comes into a game like that and really doesn’t get tested until the third period. He was able to stay in it mentally and physically and made some saves in the third when we needed them.”
The game had an edge, too. Weber and Barclay Goodrow came together multiple times including late in the first period, and Goodrow also seemed to get under the skin of Mike Ribeiro and James Neal both before and after the whistles.
The 21-year-old rookie entered the game without any penalty minutes through 15 games. He now has 14, including a 10-minute misconduct at 19:39 of the third period when he whacked Neal’s legs out from under him, perhaps in retaliation for Neal cross-checking Tommy Wingels in the first period.
“I like getting under their skin,” Goodrow said. “You kind of know you’re doing a good job when they start talking and chirping you. I like to do that as much as possible and just play a scrappy game.”
The Sharks are getting contributions up and down the lineup, and winning games in different ways. They will now get a break before facing Edmonton at home next Thursday, although it may be coming at an unfortunate time as they are playing their best hockey of the season.
“The record would indicate that,” McLellan said.
So would the eyeballs.