Niemi, Sharks blank Flyers at the Tank 1-0

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Niemi, Sharks blank Flyers at the Tank 1-0

BOX SCORE

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.

Go figure.

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.

Analysis: Scoring winger a need for Sharks ahead of trade deadline

Analysis: Scoring winger a need for Sharks ahead of trade deadline

SAN JOSE – There are no glaring holes for the San Jose Sharks to fill ahead of next week's NHL trade deadline on March 1.

Still, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson is a notorious tire-kicker, and he’s surely working the phones these days to see if there’s anything out there that could help his hockey club, which has a comfortable five-point lead on the Pacific Division midway through its bye week.

“We’ll see, but we do feel really good about this group,” Wilson told CSN earlier this month. “We believe in our players and we believe in our guys on the Barracuda, because they’ve earned that.

“Having said that, our history speaks for itself. If there’s a way to help this hockey team or add something, we’ve always done it, and we’ll always explore it.”

So, what might the Sharks be exploring? There are two areas that make the most sense – a backup goaltender, and a scoring winger.

* * *

No question Aaron Dell has exceeded expectations in his first NHL season. He’s 7-3-1 with a 1.95 GAA and .934 SP in 12 games, and his .953 even-strength save percentage is tops in the league among goalies that have played at least 10 games.

Still, it’s unknown if Dell would be able to handle the day-to-day grind, if anything were to happen to Jones. Even in the minors last season when he earned the number one job with the Barracuda, he wasn’t playing three and four games a week due to the AHL’s Pacific Division having fewer games than the rest of the league. He’s also not been overly tested at the NHL level – of Dell’s 10 starts, only one has come against a team currently in playoff position, and the Calgary Flames are only barely in the second Wild Card spot.

There are some goalies thought to be trade bait as pending unrestricted free agents. They include Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop, Winnipeg’s Ondrej Pavalec, the Islanders’ Jaroslav Halak, or Philadelphia goalies Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth. All could likely be gotten for some combination of young players and/or draft picks.

But is it worth it for the Sharks to make a move for a player that might not even be needed in the postseason? According to one NHL analyst, the Sharks should just take their chances with the inexperienced North Dakota product.

“I probably wouldn’t put a whole lot of resources in [finding a backup goalie],” NBCSN analyst Keith Jones told CSN on the latest Sharks Insider Podcast. “If Martin Jones was injured you’d have a real problem, it would be tough to find a goalie to replace what he brings to the table. I know they tried James Reimer last year, and the book is out on him. … I’m not sure that that’s a major upgrade on Aaron Dell.”

That said, Keith Jones would like to see Martin Jones – who’s on pace to play 69.5 games – get more time off after the schedule resumes. That means increased playing time for Dell.

“I think you might just want to take a chance with your backup a little more frequently,” Jones said. “You may want to sacrifice a few games along the way. [Dell] gains some experience, and Jones gets some rest.”

The impression here is that the Sharks will probably stick with Dell. Sharks coach Pete DeBoer has been nothing short of glowing in his reviews of Dell lately, as well he should be. The goalie has earned his place on this team, and none of the other goalies that the Sharks could acquire would be obvious upgrades at this stage of the season.

* * *

A much stronger case can be made that the Sharks are in need of another scoring winger. 

While the offense has been more dangerous in recent weeks than it was over the first half of the season, it still doesn’t look as effective as it was last season going into the playoffs, when it finished fourth in the league. Yes, the power play has been relatively power-less, but there’s more to it than that.

Mikkel Boedker has been a disappointment after signing a four-year deal as a free agent, and was benched yet again on Sunday. Joonas Donskoi, still out with what looks like a shoulder injury, hasn’t taken that next step after his strong playoff run last season. Joel Ward is off his scoring pace from last year. Patrick Marleau has been outstanding, but remains streaky. Kevin Labanc and Timo Meier have done some nice things as rookies, but neither of them has “arrived” yet, to borrow a word commonly used by DeBoer. Nikolay Goldobin failed in his two-game tryout last week, too.

Finding a winger to play on the Joe Thornton-Joe Pavelski line should be a priority, as DeBoer has tried seven different wingers there this season without finding a permanent fit. 

Among the veterans that could be available are Dallas’ Patrick Sharp or Patrick Eaves, Arizona’s Shane Doan, Colorado’s Jarome Iginla, Detroit's Thomas Vanek, or even Vancouver’s Alex Burrows or Jannik Hansen, if the club is looking for a more agitating type.

Sharp is perhaps the most intriguing name on that list. Although he’s been hurt off and on this season and his numbers are down on a bad Dallas team, he’s a veteran scorer that has won three Stanley Cups as part of Chicago’s dynasty. He’s an obvious upgrade over the players that have rotated through the Thornton line.

Bringing in one of those aforementioned forwards would require some salary cap juggling (especially Sharp, who carries a $5.9 million cap hit) and perhaps a salary from the current roster going the other way, as the Sharks don’t have a whole lot of room right now. But it’s worth exploring, as a consistent offensive attack should be this team’s biggest worry right now with seven weeks until the postseason.

* * *

If the Sharks don’t make a move, DeBoer and company are still confident with the team in the dressing room. After all, most of those players were a part of the team’s run last season, when the Sharks were just two wins from capturing the Stanley Cup.

“For us, it’s not whether a piece comes in or whether we don’t bring any pieces in, I think we’re confident in our group,” DeBoer said. “It’s about us…playing to our identity for as long a stretch as is possible, because that’s what wins in the playoffs. Whether we don’t do anything or whether a piece comes in here, I don’t think that mindset changes.”

Justin Braun said: “Management is going to do what they’re going to do, but if they don’t do anything, we have confidence with everyone in here to get the job done.”

Despite loss, Sharks 'in a good spot' headed into bye week

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USATSI

Despite loss, Sharks 'in a good spot' headed into bye week

SAN JOSE – Despite what was technically their sixth loss in the last eight games, the Sharks seemed to put more stock in the point they gained in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Bruins on Sunday night at SAP Center, rather than the one they left on the table.

They have that luxury. 

The Sharks will enter their bye week five points ahead of Edmonton and Anaheim for first place in the Pacific Division, and figure they’re due for some time off after a short summer followed by a World Cup for some, and a brutal condensed NHL schedule for all.

“[We’ve] showed up and played hard,” Joe Pavelski said. “We’ve been in a lot of games. Games we’ve lost, we’ve battled. There hasn’t been any cheat in [our] game. Defensively, we’ve been strong. There’s a lot of good areas in our game that we like right now.”

Playing in the second of a back-to-back against a Bruins team had was coming off of its own bye week, the Sharks fell behind 1-0 on a first period goal by Ryan Spooner, but notched a Patrick Marleau equalizer in a second period in which they outshot the Bruins 16-9. An evenly played third period gave way to overtime, where Brad Marchand scored on a breakaway to give the Bruins their fourth straight win since changing head coaches.

The Sharks spoke before the weekend about finishing the final two games strong before the respite. They ended up gaining three of four points, including Saturday’s 4-1 win in Arizona, and were pleased with their effort against the Bruins as they capped off 10 games in 20 days since the All-Star break.

“It was an important push into this break,” Pete DeBoer said. “To go in up [five points] on the next closest team is a real testament to our group.”

Paul Martin said: “I thought we played pretty well, considering the back-to-back with some travel, and a team that was waiting for us.”

Perhaps the most encouraging performance came from Martin Jones, who was one of a number of Sharks players that was looking particularly fatigued lately. The goaltender entered the game with a 1-0-2 record, 4.46 goals-against average and .837 save percentage in his last four starts, including getting pulled after the first period in Boston just 10 days ago.

Jones was impressive, though, making a vital pad stop on the dangerous David Pastrnak in front of the net midway through the third period to keep it a 1-1 score.

“It was a good game. Two teams playing hard,” Jones said. “We can take a lot of positives from that one. It was a good hard game, just didn’t go our way tonight.”

Overtimes have been an issue lately, though. The Sharks have lost their last four games decided during the three-on-three, all coming within the last two weeks. As satisfied as they are with their cushion in the division, it could have been cushier.

Against the Bruins, Tuukka Rask denied Brent Burns on a two-on-one in overtime, and Marchand scored off of the ensuing faceoff, blowing the zone past Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic and corralling a long toss from Torey Krug before sliding it home.

“We get to overtime, shootouts – we expect to get that extra point,” Pavelski said. “We haven’t found it lately. We’ll just keep looking for it.”

DeBoer said: “The points are critical, they’re valuable. I don’t read a lot into [overtime decisions], we’ve won our share over the time I’ve been here. We had a chance to win tonight, too. … I concentrate on the effort, and I thought we got better as the game went on.”

Being focused and energized, as they have been most of the season to this point, shouldn’t be a problem when the season resumes next Saturday in Vancouver. The Sharks are in prime position to win their first division title since 2010-11, and a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final is a distinct possibility.

Losing six of eight won’t be nearly as acceptable coming out of the break as it apparently is going into it, but that’s not something to worry about now, even after another defeat. 

“There are some games you wish you could get back and get those points, but we’re still in a good spot,” Marleau said.