San Jose Sharks goalie Antti Niemi deflects a shot from the Dallas Stars during the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, March 31, 2012, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
SAN JOSE, Calif. - The final week in the topsy-turvy Pacific Division will be like a game of musical chairs.
With a fast start against a tired Dallas team, the San Jose Sharks took temporary possession of one of those coveted playoff spots while leaving the Stars on the outside looking in for now.
Joe Pavelski scored two goals, Antti Niemi earned his sixth shutout of the season and the Sharks moved back into playoff position by beating Dallas 3-0 on Saturday night.
"They earned the right to enjoy it right now," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said about his players. "Tomorrow it's back to work, and let's keep our focus. I talked before about not letting your guard down, and we have in the past. Let's keep it up. We know we'll have a tougher game in Dallas than we had here tonight."
Jason Demers also scored for the Sharks, who rebounded from losses at Anaheim and Phoenix to close within one point of Pacific Division-leading Los Angeles and Phoenix with three games remaining, including a return trip to Dallas on Tuesday night.
"It was the biggest game of the year for us," said captain Joe Thornton, who had two assists. "We started well and I thought we competed hard all the way through. Good job by us tonight."
The Stars were thoroughly outplayed for a second straight night and have gone from leading the Pacific Division heading into Friday's 5-2 loss at Vancouver to being out of the playoff picture one night later. Dallas trails eighth-place San Jose by one point for the final post-season spot and is two points out of the division lead.
The Stars dropped to 1-11-2 in the back end of back-to-backs but can get back into playoff position when these teams meet in the rematch. To do it, they will have to play much better than they did in San Jose when they lost for the fourth time in five games to the Sharks this season.
"It's probably three wins or nothing for us now," captain Brenden Morrow said. "It is nice to get them again so soon. But if we do what we did tonight we're not going to get the result we want."
San Jose got a goal in the opening minute of the game, a second late in the first period and never looked back. Pavelski put the Sharks firmly in control when he tipped Marc-Edouard Vlasic's point shot past Kari Lehtonen midway through the second period to make it 3-0.
Niemi did the rest, making 22 saves for his 19th career shutout. The Sharks won all three home games against Dallas, outscoring the Stars 13-4 in the contests. They have won just five of 16 games against the rest of the division, a major reason why they are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2002-03.
San Jose has a home-and-home against Los Angeles after the trip to Dallas and might need to win two of those remaining three games to make it back to the post-season.
After being held to just one goal in the back-to-back losses at Anaheim and Phoenix, the Sharks got off to a fast start in front of a boisterous home crowd. Just 58 seconds into the game, Thornton found Pavelski coming down the slot with a perfect feed and Pavelski one-timed it past Lehtonen.
"The last few games we've had so many good looks. Not just decent scoring chances but it feels like open nets," Pavelski said. "Everyone knew the importance of the game and it was exciting to have the crowd into it like a playoff game because that's what it was."
Both teams had good chances for a second goal with Michael Ryder's attempt at an open net for Dallas deflecting off defenceman Justin Braun's stick and into the crowd, and Patrick Marleau hitting the post for San Jose.
But San Jose finally converted on its third power play of the period when Marty Havlat delivered a pinpoint pass to Demers, who came in from the point on the backside and knocked in his third goal of the season with 1:22 left in the first.
"They got the jump and set us back a little bit right away," Dallas coach Glen Gulutzan said. "We have a big game with these guys on Tuesday and our fate is in our hands. It's got to be the mindset of do or die."
Notes: San Jose F Logan Couture has matched a career-long drought by going 10 games without a goal. ... Thornton has 11 points in five games against Dallas this season. ... Sharks D Douglas Murray missed his second straight game with a lower-body injury. ... Dallas D Mark Fistric returned after missing fivegames with an abdominal strain and C Toby Petersen played after being a healthy scratch for 15 straight games. C Tom Wandell sat out again with an illness.