In what should be regarded as one of the more thrilling finishes to a hockey game so far this season, the San Jose Sharks rallied from a 4-1 deficit for a remarkable 5-4 shootout victory over the shell-shocked Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday night before 19,801 at Wells Fargo Center.
And Couture, as he has been for much of San Jose's offensive fireworks this season, was right in the thick of things.
"He's been arguably our best player," San Jose coach Todd McLellan praised. "He might be surprising a lot of people, but he's not surprising anybody on our club. Guys pull for him, guys root for him, guys know he's the go-to player right now. I know it's a long year and there will probably be some moments when things aren't going to go his way, but we'll be there to support him and his teammates will be there for him.
"Right now, he's got it going and if we have one individual as a catalyst, it would be him."
"We just don't quit and I've said that from the moment I got on this team," Couture said. "There are guys who want to win so badly, starting from the coach. We all want to win."
Niittymaki, who made 31 saves, including eight in the third when his team battled all the way back from three goals down, could sense the team was gaining steam.
"I think when we got that second goal, after that I think it was all us," Niittymaki said. "We were able to send the pucks deep. They had those couple of penalties and our power plays have been pretty good all year, so it was a pretty nice come back."
The two-game winning streak is the first for the Sharks in almost a month. The team strung together three straight Nov. 11-13-15 before going 4-4-2 over their next 10 games.
Flyers captain Mike Richards appeared to have scored the game-winner in overtime off a snap shot from between the circles. The goal, however, crossed the goal line with no time on the clock and was disallowed, marking the second time in the game that an apparent score had been waved off by the official.
"I thought it would count, but the coach ran in here and said it wouldn't and I knew we would win in the shootout," said Couture, who is 2-for-2 in shootout attempts this season.
Niittymaki initially thought the Flyers had scored.
"I really didn't know," he said. "I heard the horn but it was kind of late. I broke my stick so that's a sign that I thought it was a goal. It's one of those games that the puck was bouncing around, that goal and another goal, I'm pretty happy we won the game."
The Sharks rallied from a 4-1 deficit with a furious third-period comeback -- scoring three goals in a span of 3:55 to square the contest.
"It sure wasn't a good feeling (on the bench), but there was an icing call and somehow it got messed up for them and I thought, well maybe, we have a chance," McLellan said. "Maybe they're letting up or maybe getting sleepy. We thought about getting one before the next timeout and it happened for us. It's funny how quick guys start believing again."
Jason Demers began the comeback when he scored his first goal since last January at the 7:33 mark. Couture then connected for his 13th of the season at 9:09 before Joe Pavelski scored the equalizer on a power-play goal at 11:28.
"When we were down (4-1) we were as upbeat as you could be in that situation," Couture said. "We said, 'Get one before the next television timeout' and we did. Then we wanted to get one more before the next timeout and we did. Then the power play goal by Pav evened it all up."
Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger feels the Flyers have no one to blame but themselves.
"We've got to stay out of the box," Pronger said. "We've got to keep skating. We had full control of the game; we were dominating every aspect of the game. I don't know if we let our minds wander or whatever. We got lackadaisical and started slaying a little river hockey, and they've got players that can put the puck in the net."
The Flyers were penalized for five penalties, including a double-minor for high sticking on Briere.
"It's always upsetting to blow a 4-1 lead … it doesn’t happen very often and when it does, it stings," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. "The reason we blew the 4-1 lead was because of the penalties. In 5-on-5, I doubt we gave up half a dozen chances all night. We knew they had a dangerous power play coming in, sixth in the League. They're dangerous and we gave them the opportunity to jump back in."
The Sharks were given a golden opportunity to snap the 4-4 tie in the third when Briere was whistled for his double-minor at 13:27, giving the visitors an advantage for 2:36. But the Flyers' penalty-killers held their ground while Bobrovsky made numerous key saves. He stopped a wicked snap shot by Couture from 18 feet at 16:02 and received a bit of luck when defenseman Dan Boyle's rip from the point hit the post to Bobrovsky's left at 17:30.
The Flyers spotted the Sharks a 1-0 lead in the first but connected for three in the second to open a 3-1 advantage. Giroux scored his 14th of the season to even the contest at 6:21. It was Giroux's 100th point in his fourth NHL season. The assist by Carter was his 300th point of his six-season career.
The Flyers took their first lead at the 10:20 mark when Ville Leino took a feed from Scott Hartnell from behind the net, spun around in the left circle, and fired a shot that hit the long-side inside post and past Niittymaki. Nikolay Zherdev then connected for his first goal in five games after taking a feed from defenseman Matt Carle in front of cage.
It appeared as though San Jose had pulled within 3-2 just 12 seconds later when John McCarthy took a wraparound pass from Scott Nichol to Bobrovsky's left and banked a shot off his right skate. Following a video review, the referee ruled that the puck had been kicked in and disallowed the goal. The timing couldn't have been worse for McCarthy, who was in the process of stopping while the puck was deflecting off his skate.
Bobrovsky, who entered the game not allowing more than two goals in four of his last five starts, finished with 29 saves. He allowed three goals on 15 shots in the third. The loss keeps the Flyers winless against San Jose in their last 12 meetings (0-7-5).
The Flyers extended their lead to 4-1 at 6:15 of the third when Scott Hartnell redirected a pass by Carle from the left circle past Niittymaki, who entered the game with a 2.34 goals-against average and .910 save percentage in 15 games.
McLellan called a timeout with 4:19 remaining in the first -- perhaps upset with the play of his group up to that point. A little over three minutes later, his team exhibited some life when Dany Heatley fired a 21-foot wrist shot that rang off the post with 1:14 remaining. With the Flyers reeling a bit, Clowe then made one count when off a deflection with 4.1 seconds left.
"It's nice to be on the positive side," McLellan said. "We've been on the negative side of a couple of these this year where you're comfortably in the lead and it doesn’t work your way; a good reward for us. I don't know if we had our A-game by any means, but we found a way to win and we'll take it."
1 - 0 SJS
1 - 1 Tie
2 - 1 PHI
3 - 1 PHI