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Smith outduels Niemi in Coyotes' 1-0 victory

by Eric Gilmore

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith is making a habit of shutting out the San Jose Sharks.

After shutting out San Jose three times last season, Smith blanked them again Saturday afternoon at HP Pavilion, lifting the Coyotes to a 1-0 victory in a shootout and sending the Sharks to their fourth straight defeat.

Smith notched his 21st career shutout, making Coyotes coach Dave Tippett a winner in his 750th NHL game behind the bench.

"He was excellent," Tippett said of Smith. "Made some big saves at the right times, some tough saves on shots from the point that came through a lot of traffic. Obviously, when you don't give up any goals in a game with a shootout, your goalie gives you a chance to win, and that's what he did tonight."

Smith stopped both shots he faced in the shootout, rejecting Michal Handzus and James Sheppard.

The Coyotes' Mikkel Boedker scored in the first round, beating Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi with a back-hand shot to his stick side. Then in the third round, Radim Vrbata beat Niemi with another back-hand shot to his stick side -- his 30th career shootout goal.

Smith made 33 saves. Niemi stopped 21 shots for his 20th career shutout.

Both teams were coming off of losses to the Chicago Blackhawks. The Coyotes fell behind 4-0 and fell 6-2 to Chicago on Thursday night at home. The Sharks blew a 2-0 lead and lost 5-3 to Chicago on Tuesday night, their third straight loss after starting the season with seven straight victories.

"It was huge," Smith said of the bounce-back win, the Coyotes' first road win of the year. "After the shellacking we took last game, I think we were pretty embarrassed. It was a lot better response tonight and the way we're capable of playing."

The Sharks beat Phoenix 5-3 in their home opener last month, but they didn't have to face Smith, who missed the game with a lower-body injury. Smith posted a 1.98 goals-against average and .948 save percentage in six starts against San Jose last season.

"He likes to play deep in the net and he was catching everything," said Sharks forward Ryane Clowe, who had a team-high seven shots. "He was grabbing pucks out of the air. He played great."

The Sharks out-shot the Coyotes 30-19 in regulation and 15-3 in the third period, but couldn't get a puck past Smith. The Sharks fired three more shots to two for Phoenix in a scoreless overtime. Phoenix went on a power play for the final 20 seconds left in overtime, but didn't put a shot on net.

"We feel comfortable playing this type of game," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said of the defensive battle. "We felt we carried the game. Unfortunately we lost in a shootout, but there are things we can build on."

The Sharks nearly broke through for the game's first goal early in the third on the power play with Boyd Gordon in the box for delay of game. First Dan Boyle, then Joe Pavelski rifled shots from the slot, but Smith turned away both. The Sharks had four shots on that power play and another just seconds after it ended.

"He played great," Vrbata said of Smith. "I think we played well as a group. The last game, we were not too happy with our performance. We wanted to play our game, how we usually play, how we are successful, and I think it showed. He was great. Too bad we couldn't score one in regulation or overtime, but we'll take it."

The Coyotes blocked 22 shots -- eight by Zbynek Michalek -- to just 11 for San Jose. They out-hit the Sharks 17-14. Phoenix center Martin Hanzal missed most of the third period and all of overtime after suffering an undisclosed injury while blocking a shot.

"He wasn't too bad," Tippett said of Hanzal. "He was injured and came back and tried it. We just told him to stay out. He didn't think he could be the player he needed to be so we muscled through without him."

San Jose’s offensive struggles continued Saturday. After scoring 23 goals in their first five games, the Sharks have scored only 11 goals over their past six. They went 0-for-4 on the power play and have just one goal in their last 25 power play chances.

The Sharks had only three shots with just over four minutes left in the first period before turning up the pressure. Handzus had a great chance to score after taking a pass directly in front of Smith in the low slot, but a sprawling Smith rejected his shot.

Late in the period, Thornton had the puck twice near the crease, but couldn't get it past Smith.

Sharks defenseman Brent Burns was activated from injured reserve and made his season debut against the Coyotes, skating with Brad Stuart. To clear a roster spot for Burns, the Sharks sent defenseman Matt Irwin to Worcester of the American Hockey League. Defenseman Douglas Murray was a healthy scratch.

Burns was on the ice for 20:38 with one shot and two hits.

"It just felt good to be out there," Burns said. "I think just the speed of the game is an adjustment."

Coyotes defenseman Rostislav Klesla, who returned to the lineup after missing nine games with a lower body injury, had a team-high three shots in the first period.

Sharks fourth-line center Scott Gomez had a solid chance to score at 6:11 of the second period after taking a cross-ice pass from Patrick Marleau, but Smith gloved his blast. Midway through the period, Clowe got his stick on a pass just in front of the crease. Smith turned away that shot, too.

Boedker had a chance to break through after a Sharks’ turnover in their zone with around nine minutes left in the second. He ripped a shot from the slot, but Niemi snagged it.

"I thought it was a heck of a game," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "Both teams played hard, both teams played very well defensively. There weren't many opportunities given up. I thought we generated enough to have a chance to win."

Unfortunately for the Sharks, Smith stopped every puck that came his way.

"I haven't played my best hockey as of this year so far," Smith said. "This was a great test for me, just to kind of not worry about anything else, just kind of come in this building and know they play well in here and they're a highly-skilled team. Seems like they just get better and better the longer the game goes on. I just prepared myself for that and tried to make saves at important times."

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