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Sharks grab Pacific lead with win over Avs

by Eric Gilmore
SAN JOSE – There was nothing but good news Monday night for the San Jose Sharks – on the ice at HP Pavilion and on scoreboards throughout the NHL.

The Sharks beat the Colorado Avalanche 5-1 and climbed back into first place in the Pacific Division for the first time since Feb. 25.

San Jose got help from Calgary, which knocked off first-place Dallas 5-4, and from Vancouver, which held on to defeat Los Angeles 1-0. By the end of the night, the Sharks had 88 points and owned the No. 3 spot in the Western Conference playoff race, while passing Dallas (87), idle Phoenix (87) and Los Angeles (86) in the Pacific.

"The fact that we got two points is the most significant thing," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "I don't think we can be worried about positioning right now. You can not play a game and drop three spots. It's nice to be ahead. When you're ahead, you control your own destiny. When you're behind, you're hoping for or waiting for help. We want to be in control of everything."

Joe Pavelski, Andrew Desjardins and Torrey Mitchell each scored a goal in the second period when the Sharks built a commanding 3-1 lead. Pavelski added his second goal of the night goal early in the third period, giving him 300 career points, and Ryane Clowe scored an empty-netter late in the period. Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi stopped 31 of 32 shots and won his third straight game.

The Sharks have now won three in a row for the first time since Jan. 24-Feb. 2 when they beat the Calgary, Columbus and Dallas. They'll go for four straight Wednesday night at Anaheim.

"Every game's different, but the last three games, we've felt like we've played pretty good hockey and put together solid efforts," Mitchell said. "At times, it's not the full 60 minutes, but we're getting there and hopefully we're peaking at the right time here."

Shane O'Brien scored a second-period goal for the Avs, who lost their third straight game.

The loss, which ruined former Sharks forward Jamie McGinn's homecoming, was devastating for Colorado, which remained in 10th place in the West with 86 points and has just four games left to play, fewer than any other playoff contender. The Avs face two more tough road games – at Vancouver on Wednesday and Calgary on Friday – before finishing at home against Columbus and Nashville.

"I think we've been playing well lately, but I think tonight they outplayed us in more periods of the game," Avs coach Joe Sacco said. "I think it's important to realize the next game is even more important now for us, and we just have to regroup and put this one behind us quickly and focus on our upcoming opponent."

Pavelski put the Sharks ahead 1-0 at 3:50 of the second, banging a rebound of Justin Braun's long blast past Avs goaltender Semyon Varlamov. Braun earned an assist, and so did Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle, for his 500th career NHL point.

A diving Jan Hejda blocked Braun's shot, but neither he nor Varlamov could get up off the ice in time to stop Pavelski, who scored his 28th goal of the season.

Desjardins made it 2-0 with a goal at 9:19, taking a pass from Tommy Wingels in the right circle and beating Varlamov with a slap shot. The line of Desjardins, Wingels and former Colorado winger Daniel Winnik, who faced his former team for the first time, continued to impress and provide much-needed offense outside of the top two lines. Wingels earned the primary assist, and Boyle added an assist and his 501st career point.

The Sharks got balanced scoring with all four lines contributing at least one goal. Desjardins' line – which is considered either third or fourth depending on how each game unfolds – played big minutes against Colorado and motivated the other lines to match their energy and production.

"That's our job -- get the momentum back and to just keep the momentum going," Desjardins said. "That's obviously what we're trying to do. Again, it just seems like we're turning over pucks and we're doing the right things. We just want to keep moving forward and doing those things."

Sharks captain Joe Thornton said the play of Desjardins' line was "contagious" Monday night.

"If we can get all four lines scoring, we're a pretty good team," Thornton said. "But all four lines played well tonight. I thought Desi's line was probably the best line all night. They played hard, worked hard and always were around the puck.

"When they're hunting down pucks the way they were tonight, everybody wants to follow that kind of shift up."

Colorado cut the lead to 2-1 at 11:47 of the second when O'Brien took a cross-ice pass from Ryan O'Reilly on a 3-on-2 rush and beat Niemi.

But just less than four minutes later, the Sharks answered with Mitchell's ninth goal of the season. Dominic Moore dug the puck out along the boards behind the Avs' net and got it to center Michal Handzus, who hit a charging Mitchell in the low slot with a pass.

"They jumped on our mistakes," McGinn said. "Niemi played good, and we had some chances we didn't bury. Just from our line, we were minus-4. It was a tough night for us. We need to rebound against Vancouver and just forget about this one."

Pavelski made it 4-1 just 35 seconds into the third period, tracking down a loose puck in the right circle then jamming it past Varlamov from close range.

Clowe's empty-netter at 16:23 ended all doubt for the Sharks, who hadn't won by more than one goal since beating Washington 5-3 on Feb. 13.

"It's nice," Thornton said. "Some guys can rest in the third period, which hasn't happened probably for the last 15, 20 games. It's nice to kind of throw four lines out there and roll everybody to get their confidence going."

Despite climbing back into first place in the Pacific, the Sharks are anything but overconfident. They understand how much work they still have to do to clinch a playoff spot.

"It doesn't matter right now," Pavelski said of leading the division. "We're not going to fall into that trap. The next game's really important for us. You see how fast it happens. It goes both ways. We've been on each side of things. I think it's going to be important that guys just stay focused and stay in the process."

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