SAN JOSE It seemed like a dangerous combination.
At the heart of the Sharks recent struggles was the fact that the team simply couldnt keep the puck out of its own net. Returning home from a miserable road trip in which it allowed almost four goals-per-game, San Jose hosted the highest scoring team in the National Hockey League in the Philadelphia Flyers.
The result? A 1-0 shutout victory for Niemi and the Sharks in the first of a four-game homestand.
It was a perfect defensive game against the best offensive team in the league, Marc-Edouard Vlasic said. We set the bar pretty high tonight. If we can do it against them, we can do it against any team.
Ryane Clowe broke a 12-game scoreless streak when his wrist shot sailed past Ilya Bryzgalov at 1:12 of the first period on a two-on-two rush with Joe Thornton. It held up as the only goal.
Clowe broke it down.
When I first got it I was thinking about probably throwing it back to Jumbo going to the net, because I thought the defenseman was going to step up, but Jumbo did a good job because he took a couple guys with him. That gave me an opportunity to shoot, and it was nice to see it go in, Clowe said of his 11th goal.
Thornton said: It just shows you never know which shift is going to be the most important of the night.
The win was an important one for San Jose, 1-5-1 in its previous seven games, on a number of fronts. For one, the team would like to quickly move past its miserable nine-game trip in which is finished with just two wins (2-6-1).
Secondly, it allowed the Sharks to stay within striking distance of the Phoenix Coyotes, who remain in first place in the Pacific Division after beating Vancouver earlier in the night. The Sharks trail the Coyotes by two points, and have a game in hand.
Finally, Niemi, who had been pulled in the first period in two of his last three starts, was steady if not outstanding between the pipes making 26 saves and securing his fifth shutout of the season against the team he hadnt seen since winning the Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010.
This was a huge game, the first game home after a not-that-good road trip, said Niemi, who finished with 26 saves.
He was confident back there making huge saves, playing the way we know he can play. He helped us out, Vlasic said.
The game was feisty and had good action in the first period before slowing down a bit in the second.
The Sharks kept up the pressure in the minutes immediately following Clowes goal, and nearly made it 2-0 when Justin Brauns point shot deflected off of the post. Later in the period, Dan Boyle had all day to line up a wrist shot in the circle, but Bryzgalov stopped it with about six minutes left.
It got physical and nasty at the end of the first, too. Tommy Wingels flattened Danny Briere in the corner in the final minute with a jarring check, while Wayne Simmonds and Vlasic tangled in front of Niemi after the puck was frozen with 3.4 seconds to go. Simmonds and Brad Winchester lined up next to one another on the ensuing faceoff, resulting in a Winchester roughing penalty at the 20-minute mark.
The Sharks killed off that Flyers power play, as well as another later in the period, but Philadelphia had the territorial advantage for most of the frame. Although they were pinned in their end for lengthy stretches, the Sharks did a good job at keeping Philadelphia to the outside and protecting the front of the net.
I guess youd always want to always want to spend less time in your zone while defending well. We did have to spend some time there, said Matt Shaw, filling in for Todd McLellan, who is still suffering from a concussion.
They are probably one of the better teams in the league on offensive zone cycles, net plays, and their strength and skill in and around the net. You dont want to have to play that much time in your zone, but we did our good job in dealing with it, and certainly the goalie was the number one star in there.
Niemi stopped all 17 shots thrown his way through the first 40 minutes.
San Jose had plenty of chances to increase its lead in the third, but the embattled Bryzgalov kept Philadelphia in the game. He stopped Thornton on a two-on-one with a good poke-check, made a pad save on newcomer TJ Galiardi, and then smothered a Winchester wrist shot on a two-on-one.
I know earlier in the year he struggled a bit, but we wanted to try and get on him early and see if he was shaky, but he made some good saves. He was good tonight, Clowe said of Bryzgalov.
Theres a chance that Vlasic, meanwhile, could be hearing from the league. The defenseman drilled Briere from behind, headfirst into the boards, with five minutes left in the third. Briere was slow to get up, but returned before the game was through.
Logan Couture, the Sharks' leading goal scorer with 27, missed his first game of the season still suffering the effects of a lower body injury incurred on Sunday in Minnesota.
Odds and ends: There were just six penalty minutes in the game ... The Sharks have won nine straight against Philadelphia, dating back to 2004. TJ Galiardi and Daniel Winnik were making their Sharks debuts after they were acquired from the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for Jamie McGinn on Monday. The Sharks are still without Dominic Moore (lower body) and Douglas Murray (fractured Adams apple). San Jose won 39 of 63 faceoffs.