SAN JOSE, Calif. – Claude Lemieux could hardly sit still when he finally slumped at his new locker next to his 12-year-old son, replaying the evening’s improbable events in his head.
After 5 1/2 years away from the excitement and exhaustion of an NHL player’s life, Lemieux is going to need a few more days off to recover from his exhilarating comeback game with the San Jose Sharks.
Joe Thornton set up Devin Setoguchi’s tying goal in regulation and Patrick Marleau’s overtime winner, and the Sharks celebrated Lemieux’s first NHL game since 2003 with a dramatic 2-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday night.
After watching his league-leading teammates erase 59 minutes of lacklustre play with two dynamic goals, Lemieux was brimming with an anticipation that’s hard to stoke in a 43-year-old man who already has four Stanley Cup rings.
“It’s hard to describe what’s going through my mind all night, but I was really hoping for a win, because this team hasn’t lost many,” said Lemieux, who played 12 shifts on the fourth line. “It was just an amazing game, an amazing experience. I’m actually not so excited that we have to wait six days for the next game.”
Even with the boost of Lemieux’s addition Monday, the Sharks gave one of their most listless efforts of the season until the last minute of regulation. Evgeni Nabokov made 13 saves for San Jose, which will enter the all-star break with 73 points and at least a share of the overall league lead.
Lemieux left the league after the 2003 playoffs with Dallas, but started a comeback with the Sharks’ minor-league affiliate nearly two months ago. He expected to be nearly as nervous as he was before his NHL debut with the Montreal Canadiens nearly 24 years earlier.
“Claude did a really good job,” coach Todd McLellan said. “He finished his checks. He wasn’t a liability on the ice at all. He skated well, which was something we were looking for. I think he’s got to feel good about himself after one game.”
Roberto Luongo stopped 27 shots for the Canucks, who lost their sixth straight after surrendering Setoguchi’s tying goal with 39.1 seconds left. With Nabokov pulled for an extra attacker, Thornton threaded a pass from behind the goal to Setoguchi, who found a slight opening.
After Daniel Sedin committed a hooking penalty midway through overtime, Thornton made a cross-ice pass to Marleau for the San Jose captain’s 25th goal. Marleau, who leads the NHL with eight game-winning goals, is expected to be added to the West all-star team soon, joining Thornton, defenceman Dan Boyle and McLellan in Montreal.
Three nights after San Jose beat Detroit 6-5 in one of the NHL’s most exciting games of the season, the Sharks were more lifeless than they’ve been all year at home – yet they still improved to 22-1-2. Calgary ended San Jose’s streak of 31 consecutive home games with at least one point last Thursday.
“Certainly we weren’t happy with the effort for the first 2 1/2 periods,” Boyle said. “It’s not like they were taking it to us or anything. In the last five minutes, we were able to take over the game. That extra little effort, that extra little push, some nights you’ve just got to find it, and it’s not always there.”
The Canucks weren’t much more impressive than the Sharks, but their season-low 13 shots through regulation and Taylor Pyatt’s first-period goal nearly were enough. The Canucks were a few moments away from becoming just the second opponent to win a regular-season game in regulation at the Shark Tank since last Feb. 14.
Though Setoguchi ruined his bid for his 44th career shutout, Luongo was sharp in just his third game back after an eight-week absence with a groin injury. He made his biggest save while flat on his back with about 8 minutes left, somehow looking up quickly enough to glove Boyle’s shot cleanly from a prone position.
“(Luongo) had a great game, and we let it get away,” Daniel Sedin said. “We played the best team in the league, and we were 35 seconds from a win. It’s never easy to shake these games off. I wish we could play right away, because we are playing so well and we want to keep it going.”
A violent scrum erupted as the teams left the ice when Henrik Sedin ran into Nabokov and Ryane Clowe, who responded angrily. Both teams traded shoves, and Vancouver enforcer Shane O’Brien was frustrated in his attempt to confront Clowe.
“We worked like animals for 59 minutes and played exactly the way we wanted to play against them,” Luongo said. “Unfortunately, they got that goal at the end. We knew coming in here it would be a good challenge for us. There was no pressure on our shoulders, and we played a great game within our system. We need to finish games, but we’re starting to play well as a team.”
Notes: Vancouver D Sami Salo returned to the lineup after a 15-game absence with a broken rib. … Sharks D Rob Blake sat out his second game since getting hit in the face with a puck. He was back at practice with San Jose on Monday, and he expects to play next week with a guard covering the lower half of his face. … The Sharks will head to the break at least in a tie for the overall lead with Boston, which plays at Toronto on Wednesday night. The Bruins and San Jose both had 71 points entering the night. … High-scoring F Pavol Demitra sat out to rest his strained groin, but he hopes to return next week. Curiously, Vancouver is 6-3-2 without Demitra in its lineup this season.