The last time the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Sharks in San Jose was October of 1997. Gas cost $1.22 a gallon, “Titanic” was the go-to blockbuster flick and Mike Tyson had just bitten off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear.
It took Team Teal more than 60 minutes of nail-biting hockey to keep it that way.
In one of their most gut-wrenching performances on the 2014-15 campaign the Sharks held off the defensively-intimidating Penguins in an exciting back-and-forth bout on the national stage. Tommy Wingels notched the game-winner in the eighth round of the shootout to give Team Teal the 2-1 victory.
Not that you would know from talking to the team afterward that the team had been in the midst of such a high-octane tilt. Wingels was still so jazzed from his backhanded shot past the tough-to-beat Marc-Andre Fleury when he addressed the press afterwards, he must have used some form of the word “excited” about five times.
“It was exciting,” he said of the mood on the bench during the shootout. “When you win a game like that guys are pretty excited. There’s a lot more emotion … guys are louder after a win like that.”
Fleury wasn’t the only netminder who was on his A-game on Monday night. Antti Niemi, coming off a subpar performance against the Vancouver Canucks last Saturday, was a stone wall between the pipes with 40 saves through overtime. It was the first time this season that he faced 40-plus shots and got the win.
“He made a lot a grade-A saves,” Wingels complimented. “Guys get excited when they see Nemo play like that.”
Talk over the season always goes back to whether the Sharks can maintain momentum for a full 60 minutes, particularly in games where they run into penalty trouble and get tired — like Monday night when they racked up three of five minors in the second frame alone. But San Jose kept rolling, even when Pittsburgh tied the game up in the third period courtesy of a Sidney Crosby goal.
“We talked between periods,” Todd McLellan recalled. “We said ‘let’s play, let’s not wait for something bad to happen.'” It was a message that, unlike other intermission pep talks, got through to the team.
It didn’t hurt that San Jose had momentum heading into that first intermission. Just as their first power play expired, Ben Smith forced Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang to turn the puck over behind the Penguins’ net and leave it loose for the taking. Tierney fed the puck from behind the net to Matt Nieto in front of the blue ice, and No. 83 went down to one knee to line the puck past Fleury.
“It was a great pass, a great play all around,” Nieto recalled of the collective effort to get on the scoreboard first. “Smith got it on the forecheck and created a turnover. (Tierney) was there, had nice patience.”
The whole team had to maintain their patience as the game continued in a raucous back-and-forth manner with home team clinging to the one-goal lead. They held on until the third, when Crosby’s backhanded shot past Niemi knotted things up 1-1 with a little less than 13 minutes to go in regulation. It was his first goal in seven games, and his first career goal against the Sharks.
The tension at the Tank got thick, particularly when Wingels chipped the puck over the glass to put the Sharks back on the penalty kill with 27 seconds remaining in regulation. They managed to fend off the pressure the Pens put on to carry the game into free hockey.
Overtime was even more of a blood pressure raiser, with shots on both sides of the ice just barely missing the crease and taking the already nerve-racking game into the shootout. Melker Karlsson and Wingels notched the two goals to beat Letang’s one to get the Sharks the much-needed win, and the points in the standings to boot.
“Maybe a win like that injects some life and some emotion into a team because of how excited everyone was,” Wingels said. “Just keep going, keep the gas pedal down. It sounds cliche to say, but that’s what we have to do now.”
— Matt Nieto scored his seventh goal of the season. He has accumulated four points (three goals, one assist) in the month of March.
— Chris Tierney registered his seventh assist of the season, four of which have come against Eastern Conference opponents.
— Ben Smith tallied his sixth assist of the season. He now has three points in four games with the Sharks.