MONTREAL – The San Jose Sharks have been playing such good hockey, goaltender Antti Niemi has had to learn a new skill.
Most goaltenders will tell you that games in which they see few shots over long stretches are difficult, because getting regular action keeps them sharp.
Niemi, however, has not had that luxury very often of late.
It was the case again Saturday when Niemi needed 22 saves to earn his second shutout in three starts and Logan Couture scored twice to lead the Sharks to a 2-0 win against the Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre.
"There was a time in the second [period] I didn't get too many shots, the first 10 minutes probably, so it's harder to stay focused," Niemi said. "But it's happened quite a few times so far, so I feel better about it."
In fact, it was the fourth straight game the Sharks (9-1-1) allowed 24 shots or fewer, and the eighth time in 11 games this season that has been the case.
"Tonight we knew we had a speedy team, a team that can really counter-punch and re-attack you if you're sloppy," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "We played patient enough to wait for our breaks, and defensively it was a full team commitment. It wasn't just eight, nine or 10 guys going, everybody did their thing coming back."
A big reason why the Canadiens (6-5-0) weren't able to muster many shots on Niemi is that they barely had the puck all night. Montreal was called for 12 icings, compared to five for San Jose, and spent entire shifts chasing the Sharks in their own end.
"They're a good team, that's what they do. They're a structured team and they played a perfect road game," said Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, who kept the game close with 33 saves. "We just felt like they played well. There's not much else to explain it."
Patrick Marleau had two assists for the Sharks to give him at least a point in nine of San Jose's 11 games played this season.
A byproduct of San Jose's consistent ability to control the puck and play in the opposing team's end is that the Sharks draw a ton of penalties, and they don't take many themselves. Twice in the second period the Canadiens looked to be building some momentum before they were forced into taking penalties that killed it and swung it back to San Jose.
The Sharks went 1-for-4 on the power play and have now had 52 in 11 games this season, tops in the League. It was also the fourth time this season the Sharks only gave up one power play opportunity to the opposition, and their 31 times shorthanded this season is tied for third-lowest in the NHL.
That's what tends to happen when you have the puck as often as the Sharks did Saturday.
"Coach always says we check with our legs, not our sticks. Stick on the ice, if you've got your stick on the ice, you're not going to get called," Couture said. "You draw penalties when you play in the other team's zone, and that's something that we did. I think a lot of our power plays were drawn by our third and fourth lines roaming around. When you get a team tired on a long shift, they're going to take penalties when their brains aren't working."
Despite the territorial dominance, the Sharks offense is clearly sputtering. After averaging 4.88 goals per game over their first eight games of the season, the Sharks have now scored three over their past three games, not including the "goal" awarded for winning 1-0 in a shootout against the Detroit Red Wings on Oct. 21.
Couture, for one, is not overly concerned.
"When you win a game, you win a game," Couture said. "We didn't give up any, and that's something we've been doing well all year. It helps when you've got [Niemi] between the pipes playing unbelievable, like he has since he's been with the Sharks. So we got two [goals], we won the game, and we'll move on."
The Sharks were coming off a 2-1 loss at the Boston Bruins on Thursday, when David Krejci scored the game-winning goal with 0.8 seconds to play in regulation. It was San Jose's first regulation loss of the season after going 8-0-1 over the opening nine games, and it came in a game where they outshot the Bruins on the road by a 39-17 count.
Still, it was important to the Sharks to start a new streak as soon as possible.
"I don't know if it's more important in this League to win multiple games [in a row] or to stop the losses," McLellan said. "We've been able to win multiple [games], but this is the first time we've had to put the brakes on after a loss. The response from our group was excellent."
Price was solid for the Canadiens once again, improving his save percentage this season to .937, and one of the two goals he allowed came on a funny bounce off the glass that sent the puck right to Couture in front for tap into an empty net to make it 2-0 at 4:09 of the third.
The way the game had gone up until that point, that goal essentially ended it.
"We were nose to nose with them, so I still liked our effort," Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said. "But that's a team with a lot of speed, they're strong on the puck and they don't give up many scoring chances. We got a few in the second where we could have tied the game, but we couldn't do it."