SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -The weary San Jose Sharks were skating on fumes and grit - all except for their goalie, who had a whole month to rest up for his latest shutout.
Vesa Toskala made 35 saves in his first start since Feb. 14, and the Sharks beat the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-0 Friday night for their fourth straight victory.
Joe Thornton and Ryane Clowe scored for the Sharks, and Scott Hannan added an empty-netter from behind his own net with 38 seconds to play. But Toskala, who hadn't played since injuring his groin in Nashville, did most of the work against Columbus' superior offensive attack for his fourth shutout of the season.
The lowly Blue Jackets turned the Sharks' third game in four nights into a stiff test, but Toskala handled it with relative ease.
"The freshest guy was obviously the most important guy," Sharks coach Ron Wilson said after his 999th game behind an NHL bench. "He made the biggest saves when we needed them the most. ... We were certainly more than a little weary. We were a lot weary."
Toskala and Evgeni Nabokov, who had three shutouts in the Sharks' previous six games, tied the franchise record of 11 shutouts they set in 2003-04.
But even after Toskala recovered from his groin injury, Nabokov kept him on the bench for 14 straight games by playing his best hockey in two seasons. Nabokov allowed just four goals in the Sharks' last six games, setting the franchise record for consecutive scoreless minutes in the process.
"It could be easier to see a lot of shots in your first game back," said Toskala, who earned his 25th victory - meeting the preseason goal he set for himself. "It could be the best for your body to just get back into it. That certainly worked for me this time."
The Sharks matched last season's franchise record by recording their 44th victory - and they've still got 10 games left before the playoffs. San Jose took sole possession of fifth place in the Western Conference standings with 91 points, escaping a tie with Dallas and Minnesota - but the Stars have two games in hand on the Sharks and the Wild.
Fredrik Norrena stopped 20 shots for the Blue Jackets, who lost for the third time in four games despite dominating long portions of their latest disappointing trip to the Shark Tank. San Jose improved to 11-0-1 at home against the Blue Jackets since Columbus entered the NHL in 2000.
"That's the difference between a team chasing the playoffs and one that's in," Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock said. "Those breaks usually go (playoff teams') way. When we lose, it's because we don't score, not because we don't play hard. We didn't capitalize on our chances. The few that they had, they did."
Milan Michalek had two assists for the Sharks, whose exhaustion after a 5-1 win at Phoenix on Thursday night showed in three penalties during the first two periods by one of the NHL's least-penalized clubs.
But Thornton scored his 19th goal of the season late in the first period, whipping home a pass from Craig Rivet in the slot. Last season's league MVP and scoring champion has been on a tear recently, racking up 12 points in his last six games to move into third place in the NHL scoring race.
Columbus peppered Toskala with 15 shots in the second period, but the Finnish goalie hung in. The Sharks picked up another goal late in the period when Clowe's long shot caught the edge of Norrena's stick and deflected into his own net.
"I had bad luck," Norrena said. "That one shot that got by me kind of destroyed our game tonight. When you make a mistake like that, you feel bad for your teammates. Ninety-nine out of 100 times, that shot doesn't bounce in like that."
Sergei Fedorov played his second straight game as a defenseman for the Blue Jackets while Bryan Berard and captain Adam Foote are sidelined with injuries. Columbus finishes its four-game road trip in Los Angeles on Saturday night.
Notes: Berard missed his fifth straight game with a back injury, and Foote has missed most of the last seven games with an ankle problem. Fedorov, who won the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward in 1994 and 1996, occasionally played defenseman for the Detroit Red Wings. "It's different," Fedorov said. "It's all about timing and the battle around the crease." ... Mike Grier, the Sharks' best penalty killer, missed his first game of the season after his wife gave birth to their first daughter, Brooklyn Kendall, earlier in the day. ... The Sharks haven't yielded a goal in the first two periods of their last seven games.
|Joe Thornton (19) ASST: Craig Rivet (12), Milan Michalek (33)|
1 - 0 SJS
|Ryane Clowe (16) ASST: Jonathan Cheechoo (29), Joe Pavelski (11)|
2 - 0 SJS
|SHG - EN - Scott Hannan (2) ASST: Milan Michalek (34)|
3 - 0 SJS
|Rick Nash Hooking against Kyle McLaren|
|Sergei Fedorov Hooking against Joe Pavelski|
|Marc Methot Hooking against Marcel Goc|
|Jonathan Cheechoo Slashing against Fredrik Norrena|
|Bill Guerin Hi-sticking against Ole-Kristian Tollefsen|
|Jason Chimera Hooking against Joe Thornton|
|Kyle McLaren Tripping against Jody Shelley|
|Alexander Svitov Hi-sticking against Scott Hannan|
|Gilbert Brule Hi-sticking|
|Steve Bernier Holding against Geoff Platt|