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San Jose Sharks best Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks

Antti Niemi played well against his former teammates, turning away 29 of 30 shots (.967 save percentage) and making the only save in the shootout.
Antti Niemi played well against his former teammates, turning away 29 of 30 shots (.967 save percentage) and making the only save in the shootout.
Thearon W Henderson, Getty Images

San Jose Sharks game

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The San Jose Sharks needed their best defensive game against the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks Saturday, February 1. The list of pictured stars shows that mission was accomplished.

Defensive prowess starts with puck possession, and San Jose won six more faceoffs (32-26), had three more takeaways (12-9) yet still five fewer giveaways (15-20). Despite this, Chicago attempted seven more shots (65-58) and still got nine fewer on goal (30-39) thanks to a more adept shot-blocking opponent (21-11).

Up against a team known for not being very physical, the Sharks also continued to become more physical with an astounding 30-9 edge in hits. Nevertheless, both teams had four penalties and scored one special teams goal—and no other scores through overtime.

Joe Pavelski was the Shark to score in regulation. Just over six minutes into the third period, he took a pass from Scott Hannan after a Patrick Sharp giveaway and beat two defenders before roofing a shorthanded goal over Corey Crawford's near-side shoulder.

It took just 63 seconds for Brandon Saad to counter with a one-timer goal from a Kris Versteeg cross-ice feed. There would be no more scoring until the shootout so both teams could continue recent bad trends: San Jose's once-potent scoring has seen just five goals in the last five games and Chicago dropped its 14th of 19 overtime games in the 2013-14 NHL season.

In the shootout, Pavelski's hard deke to the backhand left Crawford open for the forehand, but Jonathan Toews countered with a backhand. Patrick Marleau got a shot to trickle through the five-hole while Antti Niemi turned aside Sharp. When Joe Thornton put a sick move on the third shot, there was no need for Patrick Kane to take his turn.

Regardless that the wins came in a shootout, it gives a team confidence to twice beat an opponent that had won four straight head-to-head and also has a sweep to their credit in the 2010 Western Conference finals. Either way, the Sharks still draw nearer to Chicago, who is just 4-3-4 in the 11 games between those two head-to-head losses in the skills competition.

More importantly, the two points were earned on a rare night during the 2013-14 NHL season when both California rivals took shutout losses at home. The Anaheim Ducks are now only four games ahead of San Jose for first place in the Pacific Division, while the Los Angeles Kings are over five games back.

That puts the Sharks on solid footing for home-ice advantage in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. It also leaves a sixth Pacific Division title under general manager Doug Wilson within reach, and means the best home team in the NHL over the last 54 weeks has a realistic shot at home-ice advantage in the Western Conference finals as well.

They will need to score more than one goal to pull it off, but right now it is just about fielding a full team until reinforcements arrive. It was revealed during and after the game in the broadcast that Tyler Kennedy would have been able to go but was still not ready and Jason Demers is out with a lower-body injury.

With John McCarthy clearing waivers and being sent down to the AHL Worcester Sharks, that left the team with just enough healthy bodies Saturday.

This could indicate that Kennedy, Demers, Logan Couture and Raffi Torres might be ready to play in the final three games before the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. It could also indicate San Jose figures to be able to make it through three home games, so why bother flying someone across country to not play and the back again rather than allowing him to keep playing?

Either way, the competition in the Western Conference is too fierce to leave points on the table, and the Sharks found a way to get it done. The next three teams they host are all in the bottom half (albeit barely) of the standings so far in the 2013-14 NHL season and in the bottom half in goals allowed.

If they can play this well defensively, they have a chance to go into the Olympic break on a four-game winning streak even without much scoring. That would put them in a great position for a Stanley Cup run when the league resumes play.