The San Jose Sharks completed two sweeps at the same time Sunday, March 16. They swept their three-game Eastern Conference road trip and took the last game against the New York Rangers in the 2013-14 NHL season barring a Stanley Cup finals matchup.
Unlike the last meeting that saw rookie Tomas Hertl score four goals and 20 players overall register a point, this one had only one point by all players combined. This game featured more team effort, but the extra pictured star power swung the game to San Jose.
New York came out the stronger team even though the hosts had been on the road and actually played hours later than their guests. It was during the first-period onslaught that Logan Couture made the individual play that would determine the game.
With the Rangers on a power play, he stepped up on Brad Richards—a forward playing the point—just outside the offensive zone and chipped the puck from the veteran. While his defender turned to follow him, Couture skated by and fended off a penalty to roof a backhand over the glove of Henrik Lundqvist.
No assist by another Shark on that play and no other goal by either team gives Couture a monopoly on points. He was far from having a monopoly on scoring chances, and this score gives a very inaccurate impression of a tight game between Western Conference-bred coaches afraid the chaos of the last contest could carry over in one direction or the other.
It was in fact an end-to-end, Eastern Conference-style attacking game. New York kept the puck in the attack zone well and launched 20 shots on goal in that first period, giving up 11. San Jose had a clear edge in the second period (10-7 in shots) but spent most of the third defending (8-14), holding on because of Antti Niemi and the ability to get pucks out better than at the game's inception.
The Rangers also helped him out, twice putting the puck to the middle of the net when he was scrambling to get back into position. These were the saves the broadcast focused so much on: Niemi did well to be in position on both and extended to the point that he could have stopped a good shot, but he never had to because the shots came to him.
Whether he was helped or not, Niemi was locked in. He was in position to make incredible saves in four of his most acrobatic displays of the 2013-14 NHL season. In the process, he had a franchise record for saves in a shutout with 41.
Ironically, the only reason it was a shutout was the dreaded "intent to blow the whistle" that, like rejecting percentage as the determinant of standings, only the NHL would consider rational. The same rule that is the leading cause of the six goals the Sharks should have but did not get credited for probably gave them the win.
San Jose's skaters supported Niemi by at least redirecting pucks away on rebounds, but New York was able to stay on the attack most of the game. The hosts had the edge in possession and attack zone time (35-28 faceoffs, 12-8 giveaways but 3-1 takeaways), but still did a better job of hitting (16-15) and shot-blocking (4.6 percent more of attempts and 18 percent fewer shots on goal per block).
That being said, a win over a good team on the third game played in fewer than 72 hours shows a team is Stanley Cup playoff-ready even if it is the result of gritting out a win while being out-played. Getting six out of six possible points in the last trip to the Eastern Conference is huge in the pursuit of first place in the Pacific Division, as the Sharks are now back to half a game behind the Anaheim Ducks.
That crown would mean the best home team in the NHL over the last two seasons gets home-ice advantage until at least the Western Conference finals. That could be key to making it through the difficult, deep field and winning a Stanley Cup.
San Jose is now 21-6-3 against the Eastern Conference, with three regulation losses to the only good teams in it and the other three coming against its worst and fourth-worst teams. The road record of 20-13-3 is seventh-best in the NHL, and only five games away from home remain.
New York fell to 11-12-0 vs. the Western Conference and 16-16-4 at home. The loss dropped the once-touted team from hosting the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs to being behind the Detroit Red Wings in point percentage for the last wild card berth.