Cheechoo scored two goals on assists from Thornton, and the San Jose Sharks got back on track with a 3-1 victory over the Nashville Predators on Saturday night.
Thornton and Cheechoo also assisted on Curtis Brown’s opening goal, and Evgeni Nabokov stopped 20 shots in another strong home start as the Sharks snapped a two-game losing streak with their sixth victory in eight games.
Cheechoo, who led the NHL with 56 goals while Thornton fed pucks into his wheelhouse last season, scored late in the first period on a dynamic 2-on-1 break with Thornton. Cheechoo added his 10th of the season during a two-man advantage in the final minutes of the third.
Cheechoo, who also connected with Thornton two nights earlier to snap a monthlong goal drought, has scored in consecutive games for the first time all season – and finally looks like the hard-swinging shot machine that became a star last year.
“It’s been a while since I got a shot like that off,” Cheechoo said of his first goal. “It’s nice to get one of those chances again. They were both great passes. He makes those passes look easy.”
Thornton, who arrived from Boston last Nov. 30, had three assists for the fifth time this season for San Jose, which took a two-goal lead in the first period and hung on to win a matchup of two top Western Conference teams who met in the first round of last season’s playoffs. Nashville hasn’t won in the Shark Tank in four years.
“He makes it look easy sometimes,” Thornton said of Cheechoo. “If you get Cheech the puck, good things will happen.”
Josef Vasicek scored his first goal since opening night for the injury-plagued Predators, who wrapped up a West Coast road trip with their fourth loss in five games. Chris Mason made 23 saves, but Nashville struggled to score while playing without several injured regulars – including high-scoring forward Steve Sullivan, who sat out with a strained groin.
“I thought we executed a very good game plan,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “They only had 15 shots with 6 minutes to go. … We played a solid game, but not good enough to beat the Sharks in their own rink.”
Both Nashville and San Jose opened the season with a significant majority of their games on the road – 17 of 28 for San Jose and 19 of 29 for Nashville. But the Sharks began a stretch with 12 of 15 games at home on Thursday night, while the Predators play eight of their next 11 in Tennessee.
Brown put the Sharks ahead less than 5 minutes in when he got a pass from Cheechoo and tucked the puck under Mason as he drove the net, tumbling over Mason in the process.
Thornton connected with Cheechoo on a 2-on-1 break later in the period, with Cheechoo burying Thornton’s knuckleball pass.
Wilson was admittedly stunned by Cheechoo’s incredible numbers last season, but that didn’t excuse his more normal point totals this fall – or his sub-par effort in certain games.
“Cheech worked a lot harder tonight, and it showed,” Wilson said. “If you compete harder in your own end, you’ll be rewarded.”
Vasicek snapped a 16-game goal-less drought with a quick shot past Nabokov, who hasn’t lost at home since Nov. 2, with less than 6 minutes left in the second period. But San Jose tightened up its defence and held Nashville to six shots in the third period.
Referee Francois St. Laurent injured his knee and missed most of the third, but Paul Devorski called two quick penalties to put Nashville two men down in the final minutes. Cheechoo scored easily on another pass from Thornton, who rebounded his own shot.
“You can’t take penalties in the last five minutes,” Nashville centre Scott Nichol said. “That killed us. It’s been a long road trip.”
Notes: Before the game, San Jose put LW Ville Nieminen on the injured list with a lower-body injury and activated LW Ryane Clowe and D Doug Murray. Wilson has been unhappy with Nieminen for much of the season, making him a healthy scratch in at least six games. … Nashville was short-handed even before Sullivan went down. C David Legwand missed his third game with a hand injury, and C Jason Arnott missed his 10th straight game following knee surgery. Both could return next week, along with Sullivan. … Sharks rookie C Joe Pavelski, who scored four goals in his first five NHL games, earned his first NHL assist on Cheechoo’s first goal.