SAN JOSE -- The game was barely two minutes old when San Jose Sharks center Logan Couture fired what looked to be a harmless shorthanded shot from center ice toward Montreal Canadiens goaltender Peter Budaj.
Budaj covered the puck, then prepared to clear it. But he didn't see a hard-charging Tommy Wingels until it was too late. Wingels poked the puck past Budaj, giving San Jose a 1-0 lead 2:26 into the game.
"You kind of hope after that it's going to be a good night for everybody," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said. "It turned out to be the game-winner and a good night for everybody."
Wingels scored two goals and goaltender Antti Niemi made 27 saves for his second shutout of the season against Montreal in the Sharks' 4-0 victory at SAP Center on Saturday night.
Matt Nieto and Couture also scored for the Sharks.
San Jose (41-17-7), coming off a come-from-behind 5-3 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night, continued gaining ground on the first-place Anaheim Ducks in the Pacific Division. With 89 points, the Sharks are four behind Anaheim and 11 ahead of the third-place Los Angeles Kings.
This is the closest the Sharks have been to first place in the Pacific since Dec. 14, when they trailed Anaheim by three points and the Kings by two.
Couture said he's definitely scoreboard watching.
"I'm sure a lot of guys on this team are as well," Couture said. "We wanted to win our division. That was one of our goals from the start of the year and we're close. We've got a couple games with Anaheim left before the season ends, but we've just got to continue to win. We've got Toronto coming in on Tuesday and that's going to be another big one for us."
Niemi, who has three shutouts this season, stopped all 22 shots he faced on Oct. 26 when the Sharks beat the Canadiens 2-0 at Bell Centre. He's won two straight games after losing his only other start since the NHL's break for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, a 4-2 defeat against the Buffalo Sabres.
"I felt great for a while in practice and the last two games," said Niemi, who was a member of Finland's Olympic team but did not appear in a game. "Just try to keep playing good.
"I felt better today than probably against Pittsburgh. It's hard to say, but I think it helps overall getting a couple games because it's been a long time since I've played a couple in a couple days."
Budaj started in place of injured Carey Price (lower body), but he was replaced by Dustin Tokarski at 1:54 of the second period after the Sharks scored twice on their first 11 shots.
The Canadiens (35-24-7) lost their second straight game and finished a four-game trip through Arizona and California with a 1-3-0 record. They trail the Atlantic Division-leading Boston Bruins by 10 points and lead the third-place Toronto Maple Leafs by one.
"We played terrible," forward Max Pacioretty said. "We didn't play our game plan. We have success when we are all working hard, but no one was doing that, including me."
The Sharks took a quick 1-0 lead on Wingels' 13th goal of the season and the Sharks' fourth shorthanded score in their past 10 games. Couture earned his 100th career assist and added another later in the game.
"We were on the power play and I wanted to play it right away to help and not have a faceoff in our own end," Budaj said. "I didn't have a look to see the player was coming. That's my mistake."
Wingels was rewarded for his all-out hustle on the play.
"I think (Budaj) expected us both to change and he put it down and I just tried going to the net," Wingels said. "That's a fortunate bounce for us. We'll take it. It kind of gave us some momentum in the first there."
Wingels scored again 1:54 into the second period. He positioned himself firmly in front of the crease, and Matt Irwin's long slap shot banked off his leg and past Budaj. With two goals, Wingels matched his career-high, set Nov. 21 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Tokarski, who made 39 saves in Montreal's 4-3 shootout win in Anaheim on Wednesday, replaced Budaj -- but gave up a goal to Nieto at 7:43. Patrick Marleau pushed the puck to the low circle and sent a pass backward to a wide-open Nieto in the slot. He ripped the puck past Murray and Budaj to give San Jose a 3-0 lead.
"They turned the puck over and I think our team in general did a good job of countering tonight," said Nieto, a speedy rookie who has eight goals and nine assists. "Patty and (Couture) had a great entry into the zone and I just kind of found open ice. Patty made a great pass."
Earlier in the period Sharks forward Raffi Torres knocked Montreal's Lars Eller hard into the boards with a shoulder-to-shoulder hit. Canadiens defenseman Jarred Tinordi quickly retaliated, trading blows with Torres in a short fight. Tinordi received two minutes for instigating, five for fighting and a 10-minute misconduct. Torres received two minutes for boarding and five for fighting.
The game remained chippy and penalty-filled for the rest of the night. Montreal had 14 penalties, including four 10-minute misconducts and a five-minute fighting major. The Sharks had 12 penalties, including three 10-minute misconducts and one five-minute fighting major.
Couture made it 4-0 just 43 seconds into the third period, scoring his 18th goal of the season. After a Montreal turnover, Couture took a pass from Nieto in the low slot and lifted the puck over Tokarski's glove.
The Canadiens played the final game of a long, frustrating road trip, and Couture said he could sense early that they were flat.
"I know if you go in and ask them, they didn't bring their best game tonight," Couture said. "They're a good team. We expected them to be better than they were, but it's a good win for us."
Canadiens coach Michel Therrien gave his team a day off Friday because he thought his players looked exhausted the night before in a 5-2 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes. One day off obviously wasn't enough time for the Canadiens to re-energize.
"The first period was not bad but the second period was tough on us," Therrien said. "We turned the puck over and they took advantage of their chances. I felt the team was lacking energy. I didn't like the way we were playing."
The Sharks could have had an even bigger rout if not for their anemic power play. They went 0-for-6 on the power and are in a 2-for-48 slump with the man advantage.
Canadiens defenseman Douglas Murray faced his former team for the first time since San Jose traded him to the Pittsburgh Penguins last March. He was on the ice when the puck dropped and needed just nine seconds to record his first hit, drilling Nieto.
Midway through the opening period Murray's image appeared on the video board above center ice, and he received a loud ovation from Sharks fans.
Canadiens center Daniel Briere played his 900th career game.