SAN JOSE, Calif. – For most of the night, Evgeni Nabokov was the only man standing between the sluggish San Jose Sharks and an ignominious end to their three-week-long winning streak.
Luckily for the league leaders, Nabokov has been eager for a chance to put the high-scoring Sharks on his shoulders for a change. Joe Thornton scored the go-ahead goal with 12:19 to play, and San Jose finally got moving after a slow start in its ninth consecutive victory, 3-2 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night.
Captain Patrick Marleau scored his franchise-record 76th power play goal, and Jeremy Roenick added his second goal in 26 games for the Sharks, an NHL-best 14-0-1 at home. But hockey isn’t nearly as easy as the Sharks have made it look during their 22-3-1 start, and Nabokov’s brilliance was all that protected San Jose from a thudding loss.
Nabokov, ever allergic to personal praise, thought the test was good for a team that’s faced little adversity during a storybook start.
“They came out pretty hard and gave us a little bit of a hard time,” said Nabokov, who made 29 saves in his best outing since a three-week injury absence. “But we showed the character, we showed the team toughness. … We have to understand every game is going to get tougher. It’s getting closer to the middle point (of the season), and teams are going to find a way to play tougher against us.”
San Jose’s winning streak – the second-longest in club history – includes four one-goal victories, but none in which the Sharks were outworked quite so soundly for so long. With Thornton providing the decisive score in his club-record 248th consecutive game, the Sharks still earned a point in their 24th consecutive home game, creeping up on another NHL record.
Nabokov bailed out his teammates several times in the first period alone on giveaways or slow defensive rotations. Columbus also played one of its better games, with Fredrik Modin and Rick Nash scoring impressive goals, but the Sharks put the blame on themselves during an animated locker-room intermission scene after getting outshot 14-4 in the first period.
“Guys were talking and wanting to get back out there,” said defenceman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who had three assists. “Guys stood up and said what needed to be said.”
Thornton played in his 248th consecutive game with the Sharks, setting a franchise record. He also put San Jose ahead when he drew a delayed penalty in the corner, circled to the net and adroitly batted the rebound of Vlasic’s shot out of the air for his eighth goal.
“We were sleeping all game, it felt like,” Thornton said. “If Nabby didn’t play as well as he did, we wouldn’t have been in it. What you saw there was the best goalkeeper in the league. He stood strong for us.”
The Blue Jackets opened a three-game California road trip by losing at the Shark Tank for the 15th time in the franchise’s 16 trips. Columbus had several 6-on-4 chances in the final 38 seconds after Vlasic took a penalty for flipping the puck into the stands, but Nash missed the net on an open shot with about 5 seconds to play.
“We knew what we were getting into before the game,” Nash said. “We knew they’re the best team in the league. We showed some character coming back to tie the game, but they showed why they are the best team in the league.”
A handful of stunning saves by Nabokov kept San Jose level in the first period, but Columbus finally scored when Nash’s turnaround fling at the net ricocheted off defenceman Dan Boyle’s stick for the captain’s 13th goal. Columbus held San Jose to its lowest shot total in a first period this season.
The Jackets controlled play again to start the second, and San Jose’s failure to score during 99 seconds of a two-man advantage incited rumbling in a Shark Tank crowd that’s seen almost no bad hockey by the home team this season. But Marleau tied it when his attempt at a rebound shot deflected off defenceman Jan Hejda’s stick and floated past Mason for the San Jose captain’s 250th career goal.
“Our guys played a real good 60 minutes, and we deserved a better fate,” said goalie Steve Mason, who made 19 saves. “We kept the pressure on them the entire time. The first time we came here (on Oct. 14), we put the pressure on them, and that was our goal coming in. Our guys deserved the win.”
Notes: Sharks D Brad Lukowich injured his groin in the second period and didn’t return. … RW Jonathan Cheechoo missed his third straight game with an upper-body injury. The former Richard Trophy winner might need a few more days to recover. … Columbus LW Raffi Torres sat out with a knee injury.