It was, in short, Antti Niemi’s best performance of the season.
The Sharks goaltender stopped all 41 Rangers shots he saw, and San Jose won its sixth straight game with a 1-0 win at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon.
Logan Couture’s first period shorthanded goal was the only scoring. The center took advantage of a neutral zone turnover, and sped on net with Brad Richards in hot pursuit. Couture managed to lift a backhand high over Henrik Lunqvist at 11:48 while falling to the ice for San Jose’s third shorthanded marker in the last six games.
Niemi, though, stole the game for the visiting team, which was outshot 41-29. The goaltender recorded his fourth shutout of the season, and second in the last four games.
The Sharks were fortunate to be ahead after the first period, as New York poured 20 shots on goal to San Jose’s 11. The Rangers played most of the period in the Sharks’ end, but Niemi stopped them all, several impressively.
The goaltender stopped Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello before Couture’s goal, and in the final minute of the first, Martin St. Louis’ attempt hit Niemi squarely in the left pad to keep it a 1-0 Sharks edge.
San Jose improved in the second, but New York had the best scoring chance of the middle frame when Ryan McDonagh stared at an open net with about four minutes to go. An alert Marc-Edouard Vlasic managed to get his stick in front of McDonagh’s shot, though, bailing out his goaltender.
Soon after that, New York appeared to tie the game on a Carl Hagelin wraparound, but a video review proved inconclusive even though the puck likely crossed with 3:13 left in the second.
The Rangers regrouped to start the third, but again, Niemi was impenetrable. He stopped Hagelin after the New York forward charged to the net around Justin Braun, and McDonagh was denied again at the side of the cage after Brad Richards’ attempt rebounded to him with about 12-and-a-half minutes to go.
The Sharks swept the season series with the Rangers, including a 9-2 dismantling of New York on Oct. 8 at SAP Center.
San Jose (45-17-7, 97 points) is 10-1-1 in its last 12 games, and is again tied atop the Pacific Division with Anaheim, which has played one fewer game.
The Sharks had just one power play, and failed to capitalize on Derek Stepan’s roughing minor midway through regulation.
The Rangers were 0-for-3 on the power play, and surrendered Couture’s shorthanded goal. The Sharks have killed off 32 of the last 35 opponent advantages over 12 games, and are 13-for-13 in the last five.
San Jose has five shorthanded goals but just three power play goals in its last 14 games.
Niemi’s 41 saves are the most in a shutout for a Sharks goaltender in franchise history. He has started five of the last six games, and improved to 34-13-6 on the season.
Lundqvist took the unfortunate loss, falling to 25-22-4 despite 28 saves on 29 Sharks attempts.
Raffi Torres missed his fourth straight game with soreness, despite taking pregame warmups.
The Sharks open up a three-game homestand on Tuesday against Florida, wrapping up a run of 12 straight games against the Eastern Conference. Anaheim visits on Thursday, and the Capitals are in the Bay Area next Saturday, March 22.
San Jose has 13 games remaining on its schedule, including eight at home, where they are 25-4-4.
Logan Couture (39) shoots the puck past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) during the first period on Sunday. (USATSI)