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After the Sharks’ 3-2 shootout win in Chicago less than two weeks ago, coach Todd McLellan remarked that the team’s defensive focus may have been aided by the fact that it was Alex Stalock in net, rather than starter Antti Niemi.
Whatever it was, it worked that night in what was the most impressive win of Stalock’s short NHL career and one of the biggest of the Sharks’ season. And, that buttoned-up play in their own zone carried over into Thursday’s game in Florida, as the Sharks helped Stalock earn his first shutout in a 3-0 win over the Panthers.
[REWIND: Sharks cruise to win in Florida]
The Sharks began the third period up 1-0, and built it to 3-0 midway through on goals by Matt Nieto and Joe Pavelski. Then, they shut the door. Florida had just five shots on goal in the third period, and 24 for the game.
McLellan indicated that the players on the ice knew Stalock was going for his first career blanking.
“Especially when we got to three, they were really excited about playing for him,” the coach said. “When we put our mind to it, and we really get committed to playing solid defense, good through the neutral zone, we can be a pretty tight group. We saw that. Maybe our best defensive period in a long time, so we’ll take it.”
Playing a tight defensive game is always a priority, but it’s even more important for the Sharks right now, as they continue to be down several players up front due to injury. Entering Thursday’s game, San Jose had managed just one goal in its last two games in losing to Boston, 1-0, and beating Washington in a shootout, 2-1.
They looked determined to get out of the funk early against Florida, hammering 21 shots on net led by the top line of Thornton, Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski. Burns, in particular, was a force in the opening frame with four shots on goal and another three that missed the net.
It wasn’t until Thornton’s breakaway goal in the final minute of the second period until the Sharks ridded themselves of the goose egg. Burns’ perfect bank pass up the wall sprung the captain for his first goal in a month and a half.
“I just saw [Thomas] cheating a little bit, so I just threw it in,” Thornton said of his sixth goal of the season.
In the third, Nieto found a loose puck in front of the net, after an aggressive move to the net from Tyler Kennedy. Kennedy now has found the scoresheet in each of the last two games after scoring the lone goal for the Sharks in regulation against the Capitals, and Nieto’s goal was his first since Oct. 17.
“For us to continue to have success with some of our guys out of the lineup, those players need to contribute,” McLellan said. “It wasn’t like they haven’t had chances, they just didn’t put them in. After the first period, you’re thinking that again. We had numerous opportunities to score and didn’t get it, so now you’re concerned. They stuck with it, and good thing.”
The coach credited Thornton for getting the team going with his late second period goal, but also for keeping the screws tight in the third.
“I think he’s like wine, he gets better with age,” McLellan said. “He keeps doing things well. I thought that him getting that goal late in the second gave us a big of a boost. Great hands, very soft play, and his commitment in the third to getting pucks behind and playing well defensively, he also led the way there. You expect that from your captain, and we got it.”
Still, the story was Stalock, who improved to 6-1 as a starter and now sports a gaudy stat line featuring a 1.80 goals-against average and .938 save percentage.
“He’s a super teammate. He just has so much fun, he’s a very, very likable guy, and when he’s in the net, he competes hard,” Thornton said. “He knows [Niemi] is going to get the majority of starts, but he comes you practice he’s going to challenge the guys every day. The guys love playing for him when he does get in the net.”