SAN JOSE – On a Sharks power play late in the third period against Chicago, Joe Thornton received a pass in the faceoff circle after some good puck movement. Despite a clear lane to the net, he attempted another pass through the high slot that was deflected away and eventually cleared.
Head coach Todd McLellan gave the captain no choice but to shoot the puck when a 1-1 tie proceeded into a shootout. And what a shot it was.
Thornton skated methodically towards the net, drew the puck back towards his feet to avoid Corey Crawford’s poke check, and calmly thumped it home to give the Sharks a much-needed two points and end their three-game losing skid, 2-1.
“I just practice on Al Stalock all year,” a smiling Thornton said, when asked about the move. “I don’t know if it worked against him. I tried it once against him. I was just lucky enough that it went in tonight.”
Thornton is a perfect 3-for-3 in shootout attempts this season, after not taking one at all in the three previous seasons.
“He has been money,” McLellan said. “That’s a really good sign for us. What a move. Really nice to watch. That must have been in his bag for a long time, because I’ve been here for six years and I hadn’t seen that.”
Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau also converted on their shootout chances before Thornton’s goal ended it, and Antti Niemi stopped Patrick Sharp on Chicago’s second attempt after Jonathan Toews scored on the Blackhawks’ opening shot.
The Sharks have won six straight shootouts, and eight of the last nine. They are 9-5 on the season.
More importantly, they managed to play a strong defensive game against the NHL’s most potent offense, outshooting the Blackhawks 39-30. San Jose has still scored just two goals in its last four outings, but got better as the game went along against the defending Cup champs.
“When you don’t score a lot you start to focus on it, and you slip in other areas. We had to reset that a little bit,” said McLellan, whose team was outscored 8-1 in three straight losses. “We’ll be fighting it until we start scoring consistently, but to win games 2-1, 1-0, they count just as much, and sometimes they’re more gratifying.”
Pavelski’s shorthanded marker opened the scoring. The Sharks, who have been strong on the penalty kill even during the recent skid, took the lead at 6:10 of the third when Pavelski squeezed a shot over Crawford’s nearside shoulder while holding off Duncan Keith.
“I was able to get just enough of an opening to make a shot,” Pavelski said.
The advantage lasted just 63 seconds, before Brandon Saad’s third career goal in five games against San Jose tied it during the remaining power play time. Still, the Sharks stuck to their game plan.
“When they scored right after, we still had momentum from that first goal,” James Sheppard said.
McLellan didn’t sense any frustration from his group in the second intermission, despite getting just one goal in the previous 11 periods. The head coach stressed defensively responsible play in a meeting with his team on Saturday morning, and that’s exactly what he got.
“We liked what we had been doing for the most part, and we just had to stick with it,” he said. “Have to give them a lot of credit for sticking to the plan and not wandering from it when we didn’t score.”
San Jose took two of three from Chicago in the season series, although both teams earned four of a possible six points against one another, as the Sharks’ two wins came via the shootout.
They can take pride in that, and perhaps even more if there is a future meeting in the postseason.
“When we play our game, we know what we want to accomplish in here and we match up pretty well,” Pavelski said of facing Chicago. “They’re a good team, they’re dangerous, they had their chances tonight.”
McLellan said: “I hope it’s a preview because that means we’re playing in the final four. … The intensity is always there. They’re a good test for any team in the league. They play a very fast, very skilled game and they’re the champs, so it’s always a good night.”