WASHINGTON – Logan Couture hasn't returned to his typical spot on the second line for the San Jose Sharks since returning from an illness, but he keeps scoring goals anyway.
Couture broke a scoreless tie with 8:05 remaining in the third period Tuesday night and collected his second game-winning tally in as many games as the San Jose Sharks defeated the Washington Capitals 2-0 at Verizon Center.
"It's getting to the point where you don't want to call him a rookie anymore because he plays big minutes and he's scoring huge goals for our hockey club," San Jose coach Todd McLellan said. "For a guy who just came off the flu and had to play this game, he was very effective."
Antti Niemi had 25 saves for his second straight shutout, as the Sharks won for the eighth time in nine games – and the second straight 2-0 victory against one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference in their building after a win Saturday against Boston at TD Garden.
The win vaulted San Jose past idle Phoenix and Nashville into fourth place in the Western Conference and within one point of Dallas for the top spot in the Pacific Division. This hot streak began by snapping a six-game losing skid that had knocked the Sharks from the top eight in the West.
"I think we dug ourselves a huge hole with that losing streak," defenseman Dan Boyle said. "That's a big hole that we're still just now kind of coming out of a little bit. We did a lot of damage there. As good as things are, I don't think you see too many guys getting too excited. We've got a lot of work ahead of us."
Washington had won back-to-back games against elite Eastern Conference foes in Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, but the Capitals' struggle to score goals continues. They were shut out for the eighth time in the past 34 games.
Michal Neuvirth made 34 saves to keep his team in it, but the rookie goaltender yielded goals on the final two shots he faced.
"In the end, he played good for 51 minutes," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "But if you want to be a great goalie in this League, when the game is on the line, you have to be the one to stop those. I thought those goals were not of the variety that should have beaten him, but at the same time I thought he kept us in for the first period."
Added Neuvirth: "I was seeing the puck pretty well. They got a little bit lucky on that first goal. It kind of surprised me. I got to be square next time."
Couture gave the Sharks the lead with 8:05 left in the third period. Ben Eager got Couture the puck on the rush and he beat Neuvirth between the legs for his team-leading 24th tally of the season. That is also tops among all NHL rookies and his 5th goal in his past 6 games.
He missed two games because of an illness and instead of being placed back on his typical place next to Joe Pavelski and Ryan Clowe on the second line, McLellan put him with Eager and Kyle Wellwood and kept the top two units from his two-game absence intact. Couture had a power-play goal to put San Jose in front Saturday and added his League-leading eighth game-winning tally.
Dan Boyle doubled the lead at 14:07 of the third. San Jose’s top line cycled the puck in Washington's zone before Dany Heatley sent a pass from behind the net to Boyle for a one-timer from the right circle. It was Boyle's 6th goal of the season.
The Capitals appeared to have a goal early midway through the first period. Alexander Semin, back from a 12-game absence because of a groin injury, snapped a shot from the right circle that squirted through Niemi and settled in the blue paint behind him.
One of the officials blew the whistle thinking Niemi had the puck, but the goaltender ended up turning and kicking it into his own net as Mathieu Perreault skated towards him. Because of the whistle, the play could not be reviewed.
"It was deflating," Boudreau said. "I mean, obviously [the whistle] shouldn't have been blown. The referee came up and apologized. Doesn't do us a lot of good – we are a team that plays a lot better with a lead these days than coming from behind. It probably would have helped us, but you can't blame that one chance -- we didn't get opportunities because we didn't deserve them."
Washington added Semin to the lineup, and fellow star Mike Green isn't expected to be far behind. Boudreau said before the game Green has not been diagnosed with a concussion after taking a puck to the head Sunday against Pittsburgh. Green was scheduled to undergo further tests Tuesday night, but Boudreau said he expects Green to play in the team's next game Saturday against Los Angeles at Verizon Center.
The Capitals had a power play and a flurry of shots in the waning moments, but Niemi turned them all aside and improved to 7-0-1 during this stretch of success and 16-13-3 for the season.
"Just getting the ice time and getting wins – I was struggling to get wins so it's great getting some wins," Niemi said. "I think we are playing great right now."
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