Logan Couture still leads the NHL with seven shootout goals, and before Tuesday night’s game in Washington, was the only Sharks player to take a shot in the tiebreaker in every game that went past overtime.
Couture, of course, was unavailable for the game against the Capitals, as he recovers from a surgically repaired right hand. Patrick Marleau made sure Couture was at least there in spirit, though, using his signature move to beat goalie Phillip Grubauer.
Marleau was the only player of five to convert, and the Sharks got an important road win to kick off their three-game trip.
“I tried to use Logan’s move a little bit, he’s had some success with it, so I just went to the backhand a little bit and then quick to the forehand,” Marleau told Comcast SportsNet cameras after the game.
The Sharks have won seven of their last eight games that have gone to a shootout, including five in a row. They are tied for the league lead with eight shootout wins, after leading the NHL with eight in the shortened 2013 campaign.
Goaltender Antti Niemi has been a big part of that success, improving to 31-20 in his career in shootouts, with a career .746 percentage in the skills competition.
This season, Niemi has allowed just 12 goals on 41 attempts, for a .707 success rate. In his last six shootouts, Niemi is 5-1 and has denied the opposing shooter 17 of 23 times (.739).
“Patience,” Todd McLellan said, when asked what makes Niemi so good in shootouts. “He’s a big man, and he’s very patient, takes a lot of the net away. Just not overly jumpy in the net, and he allows the shooter to make the first move and then he reacts from there.”
The game was Niemi’s third straight inspiring effort in a row, after he struggled with his consistency for much of November and December. He’s allowed just a single goal in each of the three games (2-1-0), and has a .964 save percentage over that span.
On Tuesday, his performance included some key stops on Alex Ovechkin on a late Capitals power play that spilled over into overtime. Earlier in the third, he stood his ground in front of shots by Eric Fehr and Mikhail Grabovski, among others.
“Nemo was real good. The power play at the end, he had to make some big saves and give us a chance to get into overtime, and he did that,” McLellan said.
“Our goaltender really stood on his head,” said Tyler Kennedy, who had San Jose’s only goal. “When he brings his game it’s hard to beat him, and he was great for us all night.”
The Sharks improved to 13-10-3 on the road, and are about to enter perhaps the easiest stretch of their schedule from now until the Olympic break. Over the next 12 games, the Sharks will face some of the league’ bottom dwellers like Florida, Calgary (twice), Winnipeg and Edmonton. They’ll also appose some decidedly average clubs like Dallas, Philadelphia and Columbus.
Matchups against Los Angeles on Jan. 27 and Chicago on Feb. 1, both at home, are the only games that really stick out as being overly difficult. Getting closer to Anaheim, which still has an 11-point lead on the Sharks in the Pacific Division, should be an objective before the NHL shuts down for three weeks.
Beating the Capitals, as inconsistent as Washington has been this season, is a step in the right direction.
“It was important for us to start the trip off the right way,” McLellan said.