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Sharks' Niemi makes 41 saves, blanks Rangers

by Tal Pinchevsky

NEW YORK -- On a team known for having its share of All-Stars and Olympians, two of the San Jose Sharks' standout players led the way on Sunday.

Logan Couture's highlight-reel goal provided all the scoring, Antti Niemi made 41 saves and the Sharks defeated the New York Rangers 1-0 at Madison Square Garden.

Henrik Lundqvist stopped 28 of 29 shots for the Rangers (36-29-4).

The Sharks (45-17-7) won their sixth straight, closed out a perfect 3-0-0 road trip and tied the Anaheim Ducks for first place in the Pacific Division with 97 points; the Ducks hold one game in hand.

The loss was the Rangers' third in four games and left them hanging on to the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. New York is two points ahead of the Washington Capitals, who earned a 4-2 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday.

On the heels of a big win, all the Sharks wanted to talk about was their goaltender.

"He was unbelievable. Some of the stops he made were incredible," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said. "That may be his best game all year."

"He's the reason why we won tonight. He was spectacular," Couture added. "Unbelievable. He was fun to watch."

The Sharks' problem in the early going was that they were probably watching Niemi a little too much. Despite trailing 1-0 after 20 minutes, New York dominated in the first. The Rangers controlled puck possession, outshooting San Jose 9-1 in the opening 6:20.

"We were standing in mud and watching and didn't execute very well," San Jose coach Todd McLellan said. "The goaltender stood in there and rewarded our team an opportunity to at least come back in the second and third."

Couture opened the scoring in the first with teammate Scott Hannan in the penalty box for tripping Rick Nash. After stealing the puck from Mats Zuccarello in the neutral zone, Couture sped past Brad Richards before lifting a backhand over Lundqvist's glove for his 19th of the season at 11:48. The goal highlighted a disastrous power play for the Rangers, who were outshot 5-1 while Hannan served his two minutes.

The shorthanded score was San Jose's third in the past six games and Couture admitted the team has looked to score more while down a man.

"Power plays these days usually have four or five forwards on them. If you can get an isolated 1-on-1 with a forward who is trying to play D, it usually works in our favor," Couture said. "I made a move to the side and tried to get it up as quick as possible."

For a moment, the Rangers thought they may have tied the game with 3:15 left in the second when a seemingly-harmless wraparound by Carl Hagelin was reviewed after the puck appeared to momentarily cross the goal line. But the video review proved inconclusive, upholding the initial call of no goal to the dismay of many in attendance at MSG.

The Rangers had their best scoring chance of the period exactly one minute earlier after Daniel Carcillo found Ryan McDonagh by the right circle with a perfect cross-ice pass. The Rangers defenseman was left alone with Niemi badly out of position, but Marc-Edouard Vlasic's last-second pokecheck spoiled McDonagh's opportunity.

The play typified a strong but incomplete performance from the Rangers, who showed tremendous fire more than five months after being routed 9-2 in their most-recent game against the Sharks at SAP Centre. That loss on Oct. 8 was New York's most lopsided of the season and the Rangers vowed the rematch would be very different.

"I thought defensively we did what we had to do. Offensively, we did everything but finish. We had some very good looks, but we couldn't pull the trigger," New York coach Alain Vigneault said. "We played a good game, we're playing some good hockey. We'll just put this behind us and move on for the next one. You've got to believe if we keep playing this way, we'll be alright."

Niemi made one of his finest saves 7:32 into the first after kicking away a McDonagh point shot. Derick Brassard found the rebound to Niemi's left and went to the backhand, but the Sharks goaltender managed to stretch out his left leg and stop him in close.

Keeping the game scoreless despite New York's 14-3 shot advantage midway through the first, Niemi robbed Brassard a second time with 42 seconds remaining in the opening period. After taking a touch pass from St. Louis near the left corner, Zuccarello sent a blind backhand pass to the Rangers center at the lip of the crease. But Niemi kicked out his left pad to make the save, leaving Brassard staring up at the rafters in disbelief.

The standout performance continued the Finnish goaltender's standout run since the close of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Niemi has allowed 11 goals in six games since the NHL resumed play, boasting a .935 save percentage.

"Some of these games haven't been easy. There were a couple of easier games, but we've been able to come back and there have been a couple of bounces," said Niemi, who made 20 saves in the first period.

Down 1-0 following a second period in which the Sharks controlled the pace and held an 8-3 edge in shots through 12:41, New York attacked the Sharks' crease in the third. Hagelin took a breakout pass from Richards and sped by Justin Braun 96 seconds into the period, but couldn't beat Niemi on the backhand.

With a new franchise record for saves in a shutout, the 2013 Vezina Trophy finalist appears to be getting hot at the perfect time. His teammates are happy to follow his lead.

"We've been playing good hockey. It's been good," Thornton said. "We've got about a month left [in the regular season]. Hopefully we can keep going."


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