SAN JOSE – Two facets of the Sharks’ game in particular are going to have to improve if they’re going to make a playoff push.
First, their goaltending is going to have to perform better than it has for much of the season. Secondly, the penalty kill will have to do the same.
Straighten out those areas, and the Sharks will be able to win games that they should win, and perhaps even a few that they shouldn’t. A 2-1 shootout victory against the Penguins on Monday was probably the latter.
Niemi was outstanding, making 39 saves in regulation and overtime and allowing just one shootout goal in eight Pittsburgh chances. His best saves came late in the third period. Sidney Crosby tied the game at 7:22 of the final frame, and the Penguins kept their foot on the gas.
“Maybe his best game this season,” Todd McLellan said. “First saves, second saves. Those are some very gifted, skilled players that are getting some good looks. Shootout-wise, he was tremendous as well.”
Tommy Wingels said: “Guys get excited when they see Nemo play like that. We all know that he’s such a great goaltender.”
[INSTANT REPLAY: Sharks pull out shootout win over Penguins]
Wingels was particularly pleased to see the penalty killers up to task, after his delay of game penalty with 26 seconds left in the third period put his team at a disadvantage. He rewarded that group, and the rest of his teammates, by scoring the deciding goal in the shootout, giving the Sharks a necessary extra point.
San Jose was 3-for-3 on the penalty kill, after entering the game just 25th in the NHL in that category.
“It’s an unfortunate penalty, but the guys did a heck of a job,” Wingels said. “They have quite the four players they throw out on a 4-on-3 there. The PK hasn’t been great of late, but maybe the PK won us a game tonight.”
Wingels went to his backhand in the eighth round of the shootout, flipping it over Marc-Andre Fleury, while Niemi stopped Steve Downie to give the Sharks just their second home win in 11 tries.
“I think when you’re sitting [on the bench] you think about what you’re going to do if your number is called,” Wingels said. “I wanted to get a good fake in and go backhand.”
The Sharks were on their heels early, but still managed to score first for the sixth straight game. The Penguins held a 15-6 shot advantage in the first period, but trailed 1-0 on Matt Nieto’s goal at 19:03. Ben Smith and Chris Tierney helped generate it.
“Great play all around,” Nieto said. “Smitty got in on the forecheck and created the turnover and Tierns was there and had nice patience and gave me a backdoor tap-in basically.”
The second period was the Sharks’ best, even though they couldn’t get another one past Fleury until the skills competition. Tomas Hertl and John Scott each had good looks early in the second that they couldn’t squeeze through.
“It was definitely nice to get that one at the end of the period and kind of stop the momentum they had coming at us,” Tierney said.
In the third, though, the Penguins came hard. Niemi was the biggest reason that San Jose was able to force overtime, even though he let in Crosby’s first goal against the Sharks in seven career games.
“We have had a habit of sitting back and kind of got into that again,” Tierney said. “Nemo really bailed us out a couple of times, and we’re glad to get the win.”
The victory was the Sharks third in four games, and although they still have plenty of work to do if they’re going to get back into playoff position, they do seem to be building a bit of momentum. They didn’t play poorly in the loss to Vancouver on Saturday, losing 3-2, so there are indications they are straightening things out after a miserable month of February.
The schedule offers them no respite, though, as they host the Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks – like the Penguins, legitimate Stanley Cup contenders – and then go on the road for 10 of their final 13.
“Our confidence level, we've got to feel somewhat good about our game,” McLellan said.
Niemi said of the win: “Huge. It's a playoff time almost for us now."