CALGARY – The way the San Jose Sharks have been rolling, they look like they’re already in playoff form.
Evgeni Nabokov made 38 saves Tuesday to lead the Sharks to a 2-1 victory over the Calgary Flames. With the victory, San Jose clinched first place in the Pacific Division for a third consecutive year, while the Flames saw their quest for a post-season berth come to an end after Colorado’s 4-3 shootout win over Vancouver.
“We had a very good first two periods and in the third we got what we expected from them, everything they could throw at us,” said Sharks coach Todd McLellan. “We spent some time in our zone but we were good around the net, didn’t give them any second opportunities and when we did, Nabby did his thing.”
The Sharks also stayed in first place in the Western Conference standings. Chicago, which won 5-2 over Dallas, is two points back. The Blackhawks hold a game in hand.
“We have two games left and we’re going to compete as hard as we possibly can to win them. At the end of the season, we’ll open up the newspaper and see where we stand and who we play,” McLellan said. “There’s nothing else we can do, we have to play hard, we can’t play careful, we have to work on our game so when the time comes, we’re not catching up, we’re where we need to be.”
The Sharks have gone 6-1-1 since a six-game winless skid had temporarily dropped them to second place in the Pacific behind Phoenix.
“That’s exactly what we needed,” said Nabokov. “I don’t think we had one odd-man rush against us and we were pretty disciplined in terms of penalties. That’s the type of game we need to play in the playoffs.”
The Flames, meanwhile, are once again on the outside looking in. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 1989, Calgary has missed the playoffs nine times and lost out in the first round of the playoffs 10 times.
“We all feel like we failed and we did fail,” said Flames captain Jarome Iginla. “First of all, our goal was to get to the playoffs. That’s not an easy accomplishment. There are good teams that are out and are over .500.”
It is the first season in his three years as NHL head coach that Brent Sutter will not be in the post-season, having lost in the first round in both of his previous seasons in New Jersey.
Rob Blake and Jamie McGinn supplied the offence for San Jose (49-20-11).
Rene Bourque scored the lone goal for Calgary (40-31-9).
“I really thought we were going to come all the way back and win a close one,” Iginla said. “We gave a big push there, we never quit and we thought we were going to get it right until the end and we had different chances and unfortunately, we didn’t capitalize.”
The problem for the Flames all season has been its inability to score. Calgary is the second-lowest scoring team in the NHL, ahead of only the Boston Bruins. The Flames have been held to been either shutout or held to one goal 25 times.
“We’ve been in too many 2-1 games. Those are the hardest where you think “just one shot”. It’s just one shot and we haven’t found it this year in the close ones. This one stings a lot,” Iginla said.
Trailing 2-0 entering the third period, Calgary got on the scoreboard at 4:20 on the power play.
After failing to capitalize on it first three man advantages, Bourque scored with Sharks defenceman Rob Blake in the penalty box for delay of game.
Jay Bouwmeester corralled a loose puck, spun and zipped a pass through a crowd that landed right on the stick of Bourque at the side of the net. Bourque easily slid his 26th goal into the open net.
Calgary desperately pressed for the tying goal in the late going but could not beat Nabokov a second time. The Flames outshot San Jose 15-4 in the third period.
“He made some key saves,” said Sharks defenceman Dan Boyle. “No one’s going anywhere in the playoffs without a goalie that’s playing well. He’s finding his game right now. We’re not going anywhere without him.”
Leading 1-0 after the first period, San Jose surged ahead 2-0 at 5:47 of the second when Miikka Kiprusoff made a stop off Logan Couture but unintentionally cleared the rebound off the shins of McGinn, and the Sharks forward easily slid the puck into the open side.
The Sharks hope to continue to see their role players score heading into the playoffs.
“Those guys (the top line) aren’t going to five or six goals a night, especially in the playoffs when the checking lines are going to be tight on them and the top two ‘D’ are playing against them every shift,” said Couture. “We are going to need other lines to step up and get a goal or two like we did tonight.”
San Jose opened the scoring at 10:15 of the first period connecting on its lone power play of the opening 40 minutes.
With Couture screening Kiprusoff, Blake ripped a slapshot from the blue-line past the Flames goaltender.
Calgary had opportunities to score in the first period but could not solve Nabokov.
Five minutes into the game, Nabokov kicked out Ales Kotalik’s dangerous shot then dove to make a glove save on Bourque taking away what looked to be a sure goal on the rebound.
Nabokov later in the period thwarted Niklas Hagman with a pad stop as Calgary looked to tie the game.
“You always want to make key saves in the beginning of the game because it’s so important but sometimes they’re there and sometimes they’re not,” said Nabokov, who had given up five goals in two of his last three starts.
Doing pretty much all the he could do, Kiprusoff also dazzled the home fans in that first period acrobatically jabbing out his leg to deny Blake at the side of the net.
The sell-out crowd of 19,289 started voicing its frustration late in the second period as Calgary failed to score on their third straight power play.
San Jose finished 1-for-2 with the extra man.
Notes: San Jose finishes with a road record of 24-14-3, which is second best in the league behind Washington… Sharks improve to 29-3-5 when scoring first… Calgary RW Jarome Iginla has no goals in his last nine games. Other slumping Flames forwards include David Moss (1 goal in last 25 games), Matt Stajan (0 goals in 16), Craig Conroy (1 goal in 23), Niklas Hagman (2 goals in 20), Jamal Mayers (1 goal in 25)… The Sharks have won the Pacific Division five of the last eight seasons… Since the Olympics Nabokov has yielded four or more goals in seven of his 16 starts. His record is 8-7-1 in that span… Mikael Backlund’s four-game points streak (five assists) came to an end, as did Boyle’s six-game streak (two goals, six assists).