SAN JOSE, Calif. – While four of Evgeni Nabokov’s teammates and their coach trekked to Montreal for a frigid weekend of exhibition hockey, the goalie took an extended break from the rink in sunny California.
If that’s disrespect, Nabokov will take all he can get. After plenty of rest and recuperation, his performances since the all-star break have cemented Nabokov’s place among the NHL’s elite netminders.
Nabokov made 24 saves to stay perfect since the break, and Christian Ehrhoff scored an early goal in the Sharks’ 2-0 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes on Thursday night.
Ever allergic to personal accolades, Nabokov claimed he didn’t mind being left off the West all-star team despite having 25 wins. The Coyotes mustered only a handful of decent scoring chances as Nabokov extended his personal shutout streak to a franchise-record 170 minutes 10 seconds.
“I didn’t do anything differently,” said Nabokov, who allowed just one goal early in his final game before the break. “It’s a little tighter out there, and we had to adjust, and we did.”
After blanking Colorado on Tuesday night, Nabokov returned to the Shark Tank and posted his 44th career shutout to push San Jose back atop the overall NHL standings with 77 points. His teammates provided strong defence during a Phoenix power play in the final three minutes, and Marcel Goc scored his first goal since Oct. 25 into an empty net with 14.3 seconds left in the Sharks’ seventh win in eight games.
San Jose has allowed 108 goals this season, matching Minnesota for the NHL’s fewest. The Sharks’ defensive prowess finally is becoming as obvious as their offensive skill – although the best defence sometimes is a dynamic offence, according to Ryane Clowe.
“We have the puck a lot, and we like to play in their end as much as possible,” said Clowe, whose apparent first-period goal was waved off after officials ruled he kicked it in. “That’s why the other team doesn’t get as many shots. When we backcheck, it’s not just to look around, either. … But you’re going to have breakdowns sometimes, so it’s nice to have a goalie like Nabby in there.”
Ilya Bryzgalov stopped 27 shots for the Coyotes, who have lost two straight since the break. Phoenix also lost centre Steven Reinprecht to a shoulder injury, with coach Wayne Gretzky estimating he could be out anywhere from two to six weeks.
“This is one of the best teams in the NHL, and we were counting on Reinprecht’s line tonight to help us out,” Gretzky said of the Sharks. “Obviously, you can’t replace a guy like Reinprecht. He’s had a great year for us, and he’s been outstanding. We just filled in and plugged guys in.”
While San Jose returned from the break with a win at Colorado, the Coyotes were blown out by Anaheim 7-3 in a discouraging start to their playoff chase. Phoenix remained in second place in the Pacific Division – although the Coyotes and Anaheim are 24 points behind the Sharks.
The Sharks, who improved to 23-1-2 at the Tank, scored their early goal during a power play in the second period when Ehrhoff fired a long, low shot past Joe Thornton’s screen in front. The goal was the second in four games for Ehrhoff, who hadn’t found the net in his previous 36 games.
Phoenix went 0-for-6 on the power play, including that late opportunity after Rob Blake’s hooking penalty with 2:50 to play. San Jose had better scoring chances late than the Coyotes, with Joe Pavelski and Mike Grier both ringing pucks off the posts of Bryzgalov’s empty net before Goc scored just his second goal of the season.
“Special teams are so important, and our power play has to be better,” Phoenix captain Shane Doan said. “You know when you play these guys, it’s going to be intense and it’s going to be a fun game. It’s one of reasons why they’re one of the best teams in the league right now. You have to rise up and play against them.”
Bryzgalov yielded all seven goals to the Ducks on Tuesday night, but the Russian was outstanding against the Sharks, making a handful of saves while scrambling on his gloves and pads across his crease.
Dan Boyle, the Sharks’ all-star defenceman, missed his second straight game since the break with an upper-body injury, although he claims the all-star game didn’t aggravate the undisclosed problem. Boyle’s absence has been mitigated by the return of Blake, who missed two games before the break after getting hit in the face with a deflected puck.
Notes: Claude Lemieux played in his 1,200th NHL game, including the last three with San Jose after nearly six years out of the league. … Coyotes RW Peter Mueller didn’t make the trip to San Jose after incurring a concussion in Tuesday’s loss to Anaheim. He missed just his second game of the season. Daniel Winnik took his spot in the lineup. … San Jose sent D Mike Moore back to its top minor league affiliate in Worcester (AHL) before Moore could make his NHL debut.