Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, of Finland, stops a shot on-goal against the San Jose Sharks during the second period of an NHL hockey game in San Jose, Calif. Thursday, March 19, 2009. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
SAN JOSE, Calif. - Jonathan Cheechoo scored the winning shootout goal with a deft backhand, and Evgeni Nabokov made 24 saves in the San Jose Sharks' 3-2 victory over the Nashville Predators on Thursday night.
Rob Blake and Milan Michalek scored early goals for the Sharks, who moved one point behind NHL-leading Detroit with just their fourth victory in 10 games.
Joe Pavelski, whose giveaway resulted in Nashville's second goal, also beat rookie goalie Pekka Rinne before Cheechoo got San Jose's shootout winner in the second straight game at the Shark Tank. Cheechoo, who beat Los Angeles in the seventh round Saturday, hasn't scored a regulation goal in 13 games, but he has been outstanding in extra time as the stumbling Sharks chase the NHL's best record.
Joel Ward and Vernon Fiddler scored first-period goals for the Predators, who finished a key four-game West Coast trip with six points, solidifying their position in the playoff chase. Rinne made 36 saves in his second start in two days for Nashville, which lost in overtime at Anaheim one night earlier.
All four regulation goals were scored in the first period, and the goalies traded big stops in the final two frames, including Nabokov's excellent save on David Legwand's breakaway in the last few minutes of regulation.
San Jose clinched the Pacific Division title and a playoff spot during the past few days, but the Sharks' three weeks of lacklustre play were thoroughly discussed during a 90-minute organizational meeting Wednesday. Players were reluctant to discuss the meeting's specifics, but the Sharks clearly left with a nervous edge.
Nashville went up 2-1 late in the first period when Pavelski's egregious turnover at the Nashville blue line gave a breakaway to Fiddler, who scored his 10th goal of the season. Michalek tied it with 3.1 seconds left in the period, banging home his 20th goal on a rebound after a sustained rally in front of Rinne's net.
The Predators kept playing well in their fifth straight game without captain Jason Arnott, who has an upper-body injury.
Before the game, the Sharks learned they'll be without left wing Ryane Clowe for at least a week after the bruising power forward underwent minor lower-body surgery. With 52 points in 69 games, Clowe is San Jose's fourth-leading scorer and the most important player yet to be affected by the injury crush that's hitting the Sharks.
Jeremy Roenick, Mike Grier, Tomas Plihal and Claude Lemieux all have been out for extended periods of time, while defenceman Kent Huskins still hasn't played since San Jose acquired him in a trade with Anaheim. At least defenceman Christian Ehrhoff returned after missing three games with a lower-body injury.
Notes: Sharks RW Brad Staubitz pounded on Nashville RW Jordin Tootoo during a brutal second-period fight that sent Tootoo to the locker room with blood streaming from his damaged nose. Staubitz, whose toughness has been his biggest asset during 26 games with San Jose, landed at least five consecutive right hands to Tootoo's face, leaving blood on the ice. Tootoo didn't return until the third period. ... The Predators will host the Sharks next Thursday. ... Nashville D Ryan Suter's eight-game points streak ended. ... Nashville D Wade Belak missed his third straight game with a lower-body injury, and C Radek Bonk missed his 12th straight with an upper-body injury ... F Ryan Vesce made his third appearance of the season for the Sharks, who recalled him from the minors earlier Thursday.