The game started out on the right skate for the San Jose Sharks Sat., March 8. A fluke shorthanded goal 2:26 into the contest turned out to be the game-winner, as Antti Niemi got his first shutout since the first game against the Montreal Canadiens Oct. 26.
Three San Jose forwards are among the pictured stars for taking over this game. Antti Niemi earned a spot on the list for blanking Montreal, including a few highlight-reel saves. The blue line supported him well to earn a representative even though they did not have a good game statistically.
With this win, the Sharks have looked like true Stanley Cup contenders in all four wins since the return from the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. They avoided getting sloppy like they had in the other two games (both losses) since the break.
Even after establishing a 4-0 lead, they used a dominating third-period effort in the circle (19-5) to help salt the game away. That gave them the possession battle over the Canadiens for the game: 35-29 faceoffs, 11-7 giveaways and 8-4 takeaways.
Even with only five shots in the last 19 minutes and eight attempts in the last 15:42, San Jose turned those six extra possessions into a 57-47 edge in attempts and 33-27 in shots. Despite facing fewer attempts, the hosts bested a Montreal team that remains the NHL leader in blocked shots (14-12).
Considering the lower number of attempts the Sharks generally give up, their third-most blocks might indicate they are really the best at it in the NHL. The Canadiens had only one more hit (18-17) but also one more power play despite accumulating 63 penalty minutes because of late game misconducts.
The shorthanded goal was the only special teams goal of the contest. The first shot of the game was Logan Couture sending the puck on net from the red line. Peter Budaj made the save but he did not know where the puck was. Rather than cover, he stood and exposed it for Tommy Wingels to poke home.
The Sharks were losing in the circle and had four more giveaways in the first period, leading to being out-shot 10-7. Before two minutes had passed in the second period, they had evened up the shots on goal with the Canadiens and increased the lead.
After having two shots turned aside by Budaj, Wingels got his second goal when Matt Irwin's shot bounced off him in front of the net; Raffi Torres got the secondary assist. Montreal changed goalies but not fortunes. Not even six minutes passed before Couture got the puck deep where Patrick Marleau retrieved it and fed Matt Nieto in the slot for the one-timer shot Dustin Tokarski had no chance to stop.
San Jose finished the period with a 19-8 edge in shots. While there was no other score, the momentum carried beyond the second intermission. At the end of the first shift, Nieto pounced on an Alexei Emelin giveaway and fed Couture in front of the crease for the backhand redirect.
From there, the focus of the game turned from scoring to scrums and 78 penalty minutes were assessed between the teams. That took no luster off a complete performance that gives the Sharks more points than any Eastern Conference team (third-most in the NHL).
The Anaheim Ducks, St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks currently project to get home-ice advantage over San Jose in the Western Conference portion of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. However, none is even three games ahead with 17 to go.
That leaves the Pacific Division still in reach. Anaheim is four points up with a game in hand and is almost certain to win the first tiebreak. However, two games remain between the rivals (one on each rink), leaving no more margin for error with a lead that has been cut in half over the last 10 games.
The Sharks are now a Western Conference-best 24-4-4 at home (the Pittsburgh Penguins are 23-4-2) and 17-6-3 against the Eastern Conference. There are six inter-conference games left—all in the next seven games and two weeks—with the next against the Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday followed by the last three in the Eastern Time Zone.
The Canadiens head home behind those same rivals in point percentage in the Atlantic Division, facing the prospect of playing all their Stanley Cup playoff series on the road. They are now 13-12-1 vs. the Western Conference and 17-14-2 on the road. They must get their game together to beat one or both true title contenders in the Eastern Conference.