After a disastrous 2-6-1 road trip, San Jose returned to HP Pavilion on Tuesday night and beat the Philadelphia Flyers, 1-0. Ryane Clowe scored the game-winner just 82 seconds into game, and Niemi stopped all 26 shots he faced for his fifth shutout of the season.
"We needed this," Clowe said. "It was a gutsy win, especially in the third. You had a lot of juggling. A lot of key guys out. I was really happy to see Nemo bounce back and play good. He was solid tonight."
The Sharks beat the Flyers for the ninth straight time, a streak that dates to Feb. 16, 2004. They extended their unbeaten streak against Philadelphia to 13 games -- 11 wins and two ties. The Flyers haven't defeated the Sharks since Dec. 21, 2000, and they haven't won in San Jose since Nov. 5, 1999.
The Sharks played their first home game Tuesday since Feb. 10, when they beat the Blackhawks 5-3, and seemed energized by the sellout crowd -- especially on the defensive end.
"It was a perfect defensive game against the best offensive team in the league," defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic said. "We set the bar pretty high tonight. If we can do it against them, we can do it against any team. Blocking shots. At the end there we made a couple of huge blocks to help Nemo out. Good positioning. We were talking in our D zone which we hadn't in our road trip. It worked really well."
After Clowe's early goal, the game turned into a duel between struggling goaltenders, Niemi and Philadelphia's Ilya Bryzgalov, who stopped 22 of 23 shots.
Niemi came into the game stuck in a frustrating slump. In two of his previous three starts, he was yanked in the first period after allowing three goals. Since Jan. 12, he was 5-8-1 with a 3.10 goals-against average. But he was sharp from the outset against a Flyers team that entered the game leading the NHL in total goals (201), power-play goals (53) and goals per game (3.30). Niemi faced Philadelphia for the first time ever in a regular-season game, but he was goal for the Blackhawks two years ago when they beat Philadelphia in the Stanley Cup Final. And yes, he had a few flashbacks, "remembering a couple of those key guys."
Niemi said he thought he had turned things around when he stopped 29 shots in a 2-1 at Toronto on Thursday. But two nights later, he gave up three quick goals in a 6-2 loss at Nashville.
"So hopefully this is the game," Niemi said.
With 2:25 left to play, former Sharks defenseman Matt Carle fired a laser from the blue line, but Niemi gloved it. After the Flyers pulled Bryzgalov, he survived a flurry of shots in the final minute-plus, including one at the horn.
"That was a tight-checking game," said Flyers coach Peter Laviolette, whose team finished its four-game road trip at 2-2-0. "There needs to be more of that playoff intent right from the start. The gaps were a little bit too soft. The skating was labored at times. The checking was tough to generate offense. I don't think we generated 10 quality chances. I don't think they generate much more than that, but they made good on one of them."
Bryzgalov entered the game with a 2.82 goals against average and a save percentage of .898, but he played more like the two-time NHL All-Star the Flyers thought they were getting last June in a trade with Phoenix.
"I feel good," Bryzgalov said of his performance. "I like this building. I like to play here."
The Sharks were missing Logan Couture, their top goal scorer, and coach Todd McLellan. Couture was out with a lower-body injury he suffered Sunday at Minnesota. McLellan took a stick to the head Sunday in the second period at Minnesota in a freak accident and was still suffering concussion-like symptoms. Assistant coaches Matt Shaw and Jay Woodcroft filled in, sharing the job.
What's more, one night after coming to the Sharks from Colorado in a trade for Jamie McGinn and two prospects, wingers Daniel Winnik and TJ Galiardi were in the lineup. Winnik opened on the second line and Galiardi on the third. They also spent some time on the ice together.
"Real gutsy effort," Shaw said. "All the credit in the world to the players for their effort, right on off from the goaltending through the defensemen through the forwards. New players integrated very well. They had a huge contribution to the game and the result. Todd and all the coaches are really proud of the group."
Clowe gave the Sharks a quick 1-0 lead at 1:22 of the first period, taking a pass from Joe Thornton on a rush and firing a shot from the left circle that beat Bryzgalov. Playing on the top line with Thornton, Clowe snapped his 12-game goal-less streak.
"We wanted to get after him," Clowe said of Bryzgalov. "I'm not sure to be honest how he's played of late. I know earlier in the year he struggled. We wanted to get on him early and see if he was shaky. He made some good saves. He was good today."
Down 1-0, the Flyers were in a familiar position. They gave up the first goal for the eighth straight game and 11th in the past 12.
"It's tough when they score on the first shot," Flyers center Claude Giroux said. "We dug ourselves a hole, and it's playing catch-up again. We can't be doing that all season. It's going to kill us. We've got to find a way to get a better start."
Both teams entered the game with just 21 left to play, and the intensity was often playoff-like with plenty of scrums and hard hits. At one point in the third period, Vlasic was chasing the puck and wound up sending Flyers forward Danny Briere head-first into the boards.
"He was all right. He came back the next shift which was good to see," Vlasic said. "I was going back and he was, and he stopped right into me. My momentum carried me forward. The ref saw it that way. That's what he said. I'm going in there to get the puck. It just so happened he turned into me and got the worst of it.
"It was a hard game. Both teams played hard. It was a close game, a one goal game, a playoff type game. That's the way it was tonight."
Make that a home playoff type game.
"It was nice, especially in the third when you need an extra push," Clowe said. "They were loud. A couple of missed calls they got on the refs. It's always nice to hear them again."