The past and present in net for the San Jose Sharks clashed for fifth time overall Friday, March 14. This was the first time that Evgeni Nabokov faced his former team, and Antti Niemi can thank the extra pictured star for getting him a fifth head-to-head win.
The first four times were in the 2010 Western Conference finals, when Niemi ("Nemo") bested Nabokov ("Nabby") all four times as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks en route to a Stanley Cup championship. That summer, the arbitration ruled they would have to pay $2.5 million to keep their goalie and he was released.
The Sharks had already let Nabby go back to Russia. They signed Nemo for $2 million in a depressed market after free agency had been exhausted to take over for the franchise leader in net for games (563), wins (178), losses (178), ties (29) and even overtime losses (39).
San Jose general manager Doug Wilson had forced Chicago's hand by offering Niklas Hjalmarsson $3.75 million per season. Once that offer was matched, the coffers were too bare to pay what it cost to keep their Stanley Cup champion goalie who was dominant in three of the four games of that 2010 Western Conference finals...and still better Friday.
Nabby played well, with two of the goals being almost impossible to save and two more that required highlight-reel saves to stop. He did have only a couple impressive saves but worked well with a shaky defense to limit rebound opportunities outside of the third goal.
Much like that Western Conference finals, it is just that Nemo played better. He had a few impressive saves and never had a real chance to stop any of the three he let in. He was very busy because his skaters were being out-played for most of the game.
The Islanders won the possession statistics by 11 (faceoffs: 29-25, giveaways: 11-9 but takeaways: 12-3) and turned it into a dozen more attempts (62-50) that made it on net (38-26). Yet they still managed to drastically out-hit the Sharks (32-19) and blocked a similar percentage of attempts (20.0 to 21.0) while giving up fewer shots per block (2.60 to 2.92).
Still, this was a gritty win for the Sharks given it was the second game in as many days three time zones from home. They picked their spots and made them count, and now they will play the New York Rangers for a chance to sweep the road trip through the Eastern Conference Sunday.
The first spot they picked was in the first minute after the second television timeout. Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture exchanged the puck deep a couple times until it was forced to Matt Nieto in the slot for a point blank wrist-shot goal, his 10th of the 2013-14 NHL season.
The next was two shifts later and showcased San Jose's depth. Facing a line that had already been on the ice for 29 seconds and were in their zone thanks to an icing, the third line forced a giveaway in the attack zone. Eventually, James Sheppard got the puck to Marty Havlat on the attack. Jason Demers pinched down in anticipation of a rebound, but the puck came his way to the open side of the net before Nabby could adjust.
It looked at the time like Havlat had passed up a good shot to throw an errant pass and was bailed out by Demers being able to roof a sharp-angle shot. Upon replay review, the pass was made to the open area and allowed for a better shot.
The Sharks were able to make that lead stand through the intermission, but gave up a backhand goal to Anders Lee 35 seconds into the second period. He kept the puck in and got it to Kyle Okposo, who fed Frans Nielson for a shot deflected right back to the guy that made the play possible. Neither Nemo nor Scott Hannan who got a stick on it as it filtered through could stop the backhand.
It was not until near the mid-point of the game before San Jose answered. Brent Burns jumped to get his hand on New York's attempted clear, then dropped and launched the puck on net. The rebound came right to Joe Thornton, who deposited the puck in the exposed cage for his 10th of the season.
The Islanders drew back to within one before the second intermission. In a perfect example of why it helps to put the puck on net, Cal Clutterbuck put a backhand from just above the goal line along the boards on net. Josh Bailey got possession behind the net and fed Matt Donovan at the point, and his shot-pass was redirected in from the slot by Brock Nelson.
It took the Sharks just 73 seconds to answer, as Sheppard got possession of the puck in the offensive zone and fed Havlat for a shot that found its way through traffic. The only other goal scored would come in the final 30 seconds when the Islanders pulled Nabby. Lee kept the puck in the zone and Okposo carried it behind the goal line, feeding Nielson for the one-timer backhand.
As much as San Jose allowed the hosts to stay in the game, the ability to get and hold on to a lead in the second game in as many nights on the road shows Stanley Cup mettle even if the opponent is the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference. The two points ensured only the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference enter the weekend with more points.