SAN JOSE, Calif. – After struggling to stop anybody during a gruelling nine-game road trip, Antti Niemi and the San Jose Sharks stopped everything against the NHL’s most prolific offence.
Ryane Clowe scored the lone goal early in the first period, and Niemi made it stand up with 26 saves for his fifth shutout as the Sharks celebrated their return home by beating the Philadelphia Flyers 1-0 on Tuesday night.
“He had struggled a little bit but I think tonight he played great, saw all the pucks,” Sharks captain Joe Thornton said. “This should definitely get his confidence back. He looked good and comfortable. It was nice to see.”
The Sharks had gone 2-6-1 on the 17-day trip that knocked them out of first place in the Pacific Division and into a precarious position for a playoff berth.
With little room for error in the final quarter of the season, the Sharks managed to hold on thanks to a strong bounceback performance by Niemi to beat the Flyers for the ninth straight time.
Niemi lost four of five games on the trip and didn’t even make it out of the first period in two of those games. But he was up to the task in his first meeting against the Flyers since beating them to win the Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010.
The Sharks allowed 35 goals during the road trip but gave up none to the NHL’s highest-scoring team, surviving a wild scramble in front of the net in the final minute when Torrey Mitchell and Daniel Winnik blocked shots, and Niemi made a save in the final seconds against Scott Hartnell.
“It was a perfect defensive game against the best offensive team in the league,” defenceman Marc-Edouard Vlasic said. “We set the bar pretty high. If we can do it against them we can do it against any team.”
Ilya Bryzgalov made 22 saves for the Flyers, robbing Thornton and TJ Galiardi early in the third period to keep the deficit at one. But Philadelphia never got the equalizer and remained 11 points behind the first-place New York Rangers in the Atlantic Division. Philadelphia was shut out for the second time in three games, also losing 2-0 last Thursday in Edmonton.
“It’s kind of tough when most of the shots from the defence are getting blocked,” Flyers forward Jaromir Jagr said. “We have to find a way to somehow get it in. Maybe shoot quicker a little bit, I don’t know. We’re waiting too much. We have to find better timing.”
The Flyers briefly lost forward Danny Briere late in the third period when his head crashed into the boards following a hit from behind by Vlasic. There was no penalty called on the play, and Briere returned.
“It seemed like a tough call,” Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. “It seemed like (Vlasic) pushed him head first, and somebody can get hurt like that. But I haven’t seen it to comment on it. He’s fine. Right now he is anyway.”
The game marked the San Jose debuts for Winnik and Galiardi, acquired before Monday’s NHL trade deadline for forward Jamie McGinn and two prospects.
But the Sharks were far from complete as All-Star forward Logan Couture sat out with a lower body injury after taking three hard hits in Minnesota on Sunday. Defenceman Douglas Murray remained sidelined by a throat injury, and coach Todd McLellan missed the game with concussion symptoms after being hit in the head by a stick in Minnesota. Assistants Matt Shaw and Jay Woodcroft ran the team in his place.
The Sharks got off to a fast start in their first home game since Feb. 10, with Clowe beating Bryzgalov with a wrist shot just 1:22 in. Niemi, who struggled most of February, did the rest. He made a pad save on a deflection, and stopped Brayden Schenn’s rebound attempt in the closing seconds of the period.
“That’s the Nemo that we know,” Shaw said. “He has that ability to win us a game, and he did that.”
The teams combined for just 13 shots in the second, with the Flyers failing on two power-play chances, and the Sharks unable to convert on their opportunity with the man advantage.
Bryzgalov kept it a one-goal game with a strong stop against Patrick Marleau, who was alone in front in the closing minutes of the second.
NOTES: The Sharks had the lead after the first period for just the 15th time in 62 games this season. They are 12-2-1 in those situations. … The Flyers haven’t won back-to-back games since Jan. 10-12 at Carolina and the New York Islanders. … Philadelphia was shut out for the fifth time this season. … Niemi has 18 career shutouts.