SAN JOSE – In his 500th game as a San Jose Shark, captain Joe Thornton helped make sure he and his surging team had something to celebrate.
Thornton scored the game-winning goal at 4:44 of the second period as the Sharks held off the Columbus Blue Jackets 2-1 on Thursday night for their third consecutive win. The Sharks (22-11-4) remained atop the Pacific Division and improved to 18-1-1 all-time against Columbus at the Shark Tank.
"I saw it up on the (video) board," Thornton said of his milestone. "It just goes by really, really quick. Too quick. Way too quick."
Ryane Clowe also scored for the Sharks, while Jason Demers had a pair of assists. Vinny Prospal scored the Blue Jackets' only goal.
Sharks backup goaltender Thomas Greiss -- making his first start since Dec. 3 -- stopped 23 shots and improved to 5-4-0. He survived a furious Columbus attack in the final minute, stopping multiple shots and getting a key block from defenseman Dan Boyle on a blast from Jeff Carter.
"It was a long time," Greiss said of the span between starts. "It took me a little while at the start to get my timing down and everything, but I got a lot of shots at the start, so it made me feel better."
After missing four games with back and hip injuries, backup goaltender Curtis Sanford started against San Jose and stopped 37 of 39 shots.
The game against Columbus (10-24-5) shaped up as a trap for the Sharks, who were coming off back-to-back emotional road wins over Vancouver and Anaheim – two teams they had gone a combined 0-4-1 against before this week. They owned first place in the Pacific Division and were facing a team that had just 25 points, the fewest in the NHL.
What's more, the Blue Jackets were well rested after four days off, while the Sharks were playing their second game in two nights and third in four. While the Sharks were beating the Ducks 3-1 on Wednesday night at Honda Center, the Blue Jackets were resting in San Jose.
"Maybe we didn't play our best, but we still had (39) shots," Thornton said. "That's still a good night. We had a lot of good chances. Their goaltender played well. For coming off back-to-back nights, it's pretty impressive."
After both teams scored in the first period, Thornton put San Jose up early in the second with his eighth goal of the season. From near the blue line, Patrick Marleau sent a blast toward to net; Thornton planted himself in front and tipped the puck into the air, then batted it past Sanford.
"He's one of the best players in the world for a reason," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "He has great hand-eye coordination. We had a lot of those opportunities, high tips today. Low to high and then high tips. The goalie made some really good saves, but Jumbo was able to bat one."
The game got chippy early in the third period after Sharks defenseman Douglas Murray delivered a big hit on Mark Letestu and San Jose forward Tommy Wingels collided with Jared Boll near the boards. With 12:23 left to play, multiple scrums broke out, and three players wound up in the penalty box: Sharks defenseman Brent Burns and Boll for roughing, and Blue Jackets center Derek MacKenzie for cross-checking.
Late in the third, Blue Jackets forward Derek Dorsett hit Wingels from behind, sending him into the boards behind San Jose's goal and earning a trip to the box for boarding.
"I don't know if they were trying to draw us into something," Clowe said of the physical third period. "They didn't have any power plays. If they were trying to suck us in, I think we did a pretty good job of trying to stay disciplined. They took a couple more penalties. The intensity went up a little there for a 10-minute stretch."
The Sharks went just 1-for-4 on the power play, but Columbus failed to get on the man advantage.
"I thought we played a solid game," Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash said. "We didn't get as many offensive chances as we wanted. The difference was the power play."
Prospal gave the Blue Jackets a 1-0 lead just 2:13 into the game, taking a beautiful pass from Letestu and jamming the puck past Greiss. From behind the Sharks' goal and facing the boards, Letestu sent a sharp-angled, backward pass to Prospal, just left of the crease. Prospal did the rest.
After that, the Sharks' defense clamped down.
"I think early on with that goal from Prospal, I think the guys realized, ‘Hey, we've got to tighten up a little bit,' and I think we did that," Thornton said.
"Greisser did a good job of just swallowing pucks up and (sending) pucks away from him. But after that first one we just clamped down and played well defensively."
Columbus outshot the Sharks 8-1 in the first six-plus minutes, but San Jose outshot the Blue Jackets 14-2 for the rest of the period, in large part because forward Ryan Johansen went to the box twice for high sticking Boyle.
Johansen's first penalty was a double minor because he drew blood, and the Sharks took advantage against the NHL's 29th-ranked penalty kill at 13:03 when Clowe fired a rebound past Sanford. Moments earlier, Jackets defenseman Marc Methot, stationed in front of the net, accidentally sent the puck toward Sanford after a shot from Michal Handzus. Sanford stopped the puck with his left pad, but Clowe was there to knock it home.
"We knew these guys were coming in from Anaheim," Blue Jackets coach Scott Arniel said. "We didn't want to let them get on the power play early in the game. We played a real solid 10 minutes. We got the lead and did a lot of good things and then six minutes of power play and that gives them life. It really jump-started them for the second period."
In his previous start, Greiss gave up five goals on 35 shots in a 5-3 loss to Florida at the Shark Tank. He had no such problems against the struggling Blue Jackets.
"I thought Tommy played well," McLellan said. "Wasn't tested a lot but had to make some difficult saves. Again I refer to the first 10 minutes of the game when it could have gone maybe to 2-0 and then we're in trouble. He found a way to make some real good saves. We had four outnumbered rushes against in the first period alone and then we cleaned that up after."
The Sharks recalled Wingels from Worcester of the AHL, and he was in the lineup against Columbus, skating on the fourth line with Handzus and former Blue Jackets forward Andrew Murray.
Sharks center Andrew Desjardins and winger Brad Winchester, typically on the fourth line, joined winger Jamie McGinn on the third, which is how they finished Wednesday night's win at Anaheim.
Third-line winger Forward Torrey Mitchell was a healthy scratch for the first time this season.
"We decided to go with a different lineup, put some fresh legs in. He's an important part of our hockey club," McLellan said of Mitchell. "He does a lot of things well when he's really going good. He didn't have a very solid game in Anaheim. We know he'll recover and be an important piece."