The San Jose Sharks began 2011 by losing six straight in regulation. They came into the weekend having answered with seven straight games getting a point in the standings, winning six.
In the process, they have moved up from the 11th best record in the west to the fifth. But on Saturday, they knew they were in for a fight against the Boston Bruins.
For one thing, Boston had the fifth-best record in the NHL and the best defence, as well as being top 10 in scoring. For another, the game was at 1pm EST, which was 10am for the Pacific-dwelling Sharks body clocks.
But more than that, Boston was in a pugilistic frame of mind, having engaged in three fights in the first four seconds of their previous game against the Dallas Stars, exactly the kind of excessive fighting that spawned the phrase, "I was at a fight last night and a hockey game broke out." In this tilt, only one fight happened; Ben Eager got the best of Adam McQuaid and got an additional roughing penalty for it.
The team knew it would be tough going up against Tim Thomas, who either was tied for or alone in the lead in goals against average, save percentage, wins and shutouts. They were ready.
In the first period, both teams were playing great defence, and only 11 shots on goal were registered. But when Boston got caught for too many men on the ice just 5:37 into the game, the Sharks took advantage of the resulting power play, despite the penalty kill getting the first good scoring chance from Mark Recchi.
Logan Couture took a pass through from Ryane Clowe through the slot and put a backhand past Thomas from his glove-side faceoff circle. The shot in itself was harmless, but with Devin Setoguchi—one of San Jose's best forwards of late—crashing the net and getting in the goalie's grill, the shot found its way in for the lead. Marc-Edouard Vlasic got the secondary assist by pouncing on a giveaway in the neutral zone.
The Sharks continued to crash the net, with Eager being in Thomas' way more than once. Unfortunately in what appeared to be a second goal by Douglas Murray, he was called for incidental contact—it was a close call that could have gone either way, but probably the better call.
The Sharks managed just 11 shots through the first two periods to Boston's 18, partially because they had killed three penalties to the Bruins' two. But the third period involved a bit more shooting—seven shots for the guests to eight for the hosts, including another penalty kill for San Jose. But Antti Niemi was up to the task, finishing with a 26-save shutout, and Setoguchi added an empty-net goal (assisted by Niclas Wallin and Clowe) with two seconds left for the 2-0 win.
The Sharks gritted out the game, blocking 25 shots (to 13 for Boston), matching the physical B's hit for hit (29 each) and winning the faceoff battle on the road (23-21). They also took care of the puck better: San Jose had eight giveaways to Boston's six, but they had nine takeaways to the host's two.
Because the Nashville Predators won, the Sharks remained in fifth in the Western Conference standings. A loss by Dallas allowed them to move within a game and a half of first in the division; but since all other division teams won, they are also only a game from last place.
San Jose continues with the third game of their seven-game road trip Tuesday in Washington against Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals. The Sharks are 15-9-3 on the road this season.