SAN JOSE, Calif. – Thanks to the NHL’s geographically slanted schedule, a big chunk of the Atlanta Thrashers’ roster and coaching staff had never even seen the Shark Tank before Saturday.
They left with ample respect for the Western Conference leaders, and for one well-known veteran who was just grateful to be seen in uniform again.
Jeremy Roenick picked up his 700th career assist in his return from a 10-week injury absence, and Ryane Clowe broke a scoreless tie 30 seconds into the third period of the San Jose Sharks’ 3-1 victory over the Thrashers.
Evgeni Nabokov made 22 saves for the Sharks, who set a franchise record with their NHL-best 26th home win already this season. Jonathan Cheechoo and Joe Thornton also scored power-play goals as the Sharks rallied to win their third straight, staying ahead of Detroit atop the conference standings.
The teams hadn’t met since March 22, 2007, and Atlanta hadn’t played in San Jose since Dec. 6, 2005. The unfamiliarity led to two dull, scoreless periods in a rare San Jose matinee, but the Sharks took charge in the third with an assist from Roenick, whose fresh legs easily made up for the slight rust on his game.
“Right from when I stepped on the ice for my first shift, it felt great to be out there with the boys,” said Roenick, who missed 28 games because of torn cartilage in his shoulder. “I told (coach Todd McLellan) two weeks ago I was ready. … I’ve seen some guys with the same injury this year out for four months. It’s good to see the old guys can come back as fast, or even quicker.”
San Jose activated Roenick and defenceman Brad Lukowich from its injured list before the game. Lukowich still missed his 18th straight game after taking pre-game warmups, but the Sharks got close to full strength before heading out on a key four-game road trip with stops in Dallas, Detroit and Montreal.
“He’s our Energizer Bunny,” McLellan said of Roenick. “He’s ready to go every shift. That will rub off on other players.”
McLellan teamed the 39-year-old Roenick with 43-year-old Claude Lemieux and 33-year-old enforcer Jody Shelley on a fourth line that promises to be one of hockey’s most entertaining groups, if not its slickest any more.
“It’s definitely the oldest line in the NHL,” Roenick said. “We’ve got about 115 years of experience, so we must be doing something right.”
Bryan Little scored during a 5-on-3 advantage for the Thrashers, who lost in regulation for the first time on their four-game road trip. Little scored at every stop on Atlanta’s road swing, but the Thrashers still haven’t won at San Jose in the franchise’s six visits.
Kari Lehtonen stopped 28 shots for the Thrashers, who dropped to 1-8-2 against the Sharks. Anderson wouldn’t use the unfamiliarity as an excuse.
“It’s no different for them, (since) they don’t see us,” Anderson said. “It’s the same thing. There are no secrets in this league. There’s enough video going around that you could start your own movie theatre. You have to make adjustments, which our guys did. I was surprised how loud it was, though. It was my first time in here.”
Clowe forced a turnover in the Atlanta zone on the opening shift of the third period. Lehtonen stopped shots by Joe Pavelski and Milan Michalek before Clowe slapped home the rebound for his 21st goal, ending a seven-game goal drought that matched the longest of the season for San Jose’s imposing power forward.
“We had some good shots early on, but no net presence,” said Clowe, held without a goal on San Jose’s five-game trip earlier in the month. “When we go on the road, we’ve got to find ways to put teams away. We’ve got to establish some leads. I don’t think we even got a first goal on that last trip.”
Cheechoo then scored in the final seconds of a power play, slipping a shot between Lehtonen’s pads after a cross-ice pass from Roenick. Little kept it close with the 25th goal of his breakout sophomore season, but Thornton tapped home his 15th goal with 6:42 to play.
Hulking defenceman Boris Valabik returned to the Thrashers’ lineup after sitting out five games. The six-foot-seven Slovakian rookie committed two minor penalties and lost an entertaining fight to Shelley.
“For me, it’s especially difficult as a defenceman to play against them,” Valabik said. “I went around asking guys who they knew on the Sharks. If they knew someone, I asked how they play, and what are his tendencies. How fast is he? How skilled? You never really know until you face them. To watch a guy on TV or tape is completely different than playing against them. I tried to do as much scouting as I could, but it’s never enough.”
Center Tomas Plihal also returned to the Sharks’ lineup after missing two games with a lower-body injury, and Shelley also had skipped six straight games with a lower-body injury.
Notes: Lukowich hasn’t played since undergoing sports hernia surgery. … Fellow rookie D Nathan Oystrick was scratched in favour of Valabik. … Pavelski extended his points streak to a career-best six games. … Sharks RW Devin Setoguchi earned an assist while playing in his 100th NHL game. He has 35 goals and 33 assists in his short career.