SAN JOSE, Calif. – Though Evgeni Nabokov and Roberto Luongo are the Western Conference’s top two goalies by most measures, the San Jose star has loomed large over his Vancouver counterpart whenever they’ve gone mask-to-mask this season.
Jeremy Roenick and Milan Michalek scored power-play goals, and the Sharks beat the Canucks 3-1 Thursday night to sweep the season series with their sixth victory in seven games overall.
Craig Rivet had a goal and an assist, and Nabokov celebrated his all-star selection with 20 saves in his NHL-leading 24th victory for the Sharks.
San Jose has won all four of its meetings this season with the Canucks, and Nabokov has been superior to Luongo in three of them – though you’ll never get Nabby to acknowledge it.
“There’s so many great goalies in the league, so you (can’t) pay attention to every time somebody comes in,” Nabokov said. “We’ve played pretty well against them, but that’s because of everybody on the roster. It’s not just about the goalie.”
Luongo and Nabokov have been among the NHL’s elite netminders all season, and they would have been teammates at the all-star game later in the month if Luongo hadn’t decided to skip the game to be with his pregnant wife in their off-season Florida home. Luongo was voted the West starter by the fans, but Nabokov might replace him after getting added to the team as a reserve.
Luongo worried his team was in trouble after another slow start against the Sharks, who have outscored Vancouver 15-6 this season.
“I think every game against us, they’ve got out to an early lead,” said Luongo, who stopped 28 shots. “It’s been hard to come back. We knew it was going to be a tight affair. These guys play well defensively.”
Nabokov, who has started all 42 of the Sharks’ games, has few blemishes on what’s shaping up as his best year – although he has blown five shutout bids in the third period this season, including three in the last 11 days.
Ryan Kesler ended Nabokov’s latest shutout bid with 7:35 to play, but the Sharks’ stopper made every other big play to back another sterling defensive game for his club.
Joe Thornton, the Sharks’ other all-star along with coach Ron Wilson, picked up three assists to avoid his first three-game scoring drought since late 2006. The Sharks have just eight home wins despite their first-place standing, but a few more sterling defensive games could increase that total quickly.
“It’s a new year, and as long as we keep getting wins, it doesn’t really matter where we get them,” Thornton said. “I think we can improve the home record significantly. … We go as Nabby goes. He’s a big part of this team, and we really needed him tonight.”
The clubs entered the game with 52 points apiece, tied for third place in the Western Conference. The victory vaulted the Sharks back into a tie for first place with Dallas in the Pacific Division.
“This team obviously has our number this year,” Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said. “They’ve outplayed us in all areas of the game. We couldn’t sustain their pace tonight. They were the much better team.”
San Jose scored first late in the opening period on a remarkable effort by Mike Grier, who forced a turnover and led an odd-man rush before feeding Rivet and screening Luongo while the defenceman scored his fourth goal. Rivet has three goals in five games after getting just two in his first 35 games this season.
Roenick added his eighth goal during a power play early in the second with a smooth backhand of Rivet’s rebound. The goal was his 503rd, moving him out of a tie for second place in career goal-scoring among U.S.-born players behind Mike Modano.
“It’s always good to get individual achievements, but I was more happy with how our team played tonight,” Roenick said. “I think it was one of the best games we’ve played all year.”
Notes: Thornton has 200 assists in his first 181 games with San Jose. … The Sharks hadn’t scored two power-play goals in a game since Nov. 30, with their unit slipping into the bottom third of the NHL. … LW Jeff Cowan returned to Vancouver’s lineup after missing 13 games with a shoulder injury.