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Niemi, Sharks blank Coyotes

The SportsXchange

PHOENIX -- San Jose players call goaltender Antti Niemi "Nemo," and it is not hard to find him. He is the man catching, smothering or otherwise keeping the puck out of the Sharks' net.

Niemi had 35 saves for his fourth shutout of the season in a 4-0 victory over Phoenix on Monday.

"You've seen it all year. In our opinion, he's the best goalie in the league. He is fun to play for. He's fun to practice with, because he is the hardest working goalie I've ever played with. We have a lot of confidence in him. We want to play hard behind him," San Jose forward Logan Couture said.

Couture scored his 17th goal of the season at 8:50 of the second period, beginning a dominating run in which the Sharks scored three goals and put 23 shots on Coyotes goaltender Jason LaBarbera.

Tommy Wingels and Joe Pavelski scored later in the second period, and Matt Irwin scored in the final two minutes. The final goal originally was credited to Couture, who said after the game he did not touch the puck.

Niemi recorded his 21st victory of the season, tying Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury and Minnesota's Niklas Backstrom for the most in the league, as the Sharks finished their road trip at 2-2. They have four of their final six games at home.

"This is huge for us," said Niemi, who had a 21-save shutout against the Coyotes in a 1-0 shootout loss Feb. 9 in San Jose. He won 35 games in 2010-11 and 34 last season.

San Jose (22-13-7) moved within a point of Los Angeles for fourth place in the Western Conference and home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs with six games remaining in the regular season. The Sharks play host to the Kings on Tuesday.

The defending Pacific Division champion Coyotes (18-17-1) remain four points behind Detroit and Columbus for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot entering a three-game road trip to St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit that begins Thursday.

"Big points. We haven't (done) particularly well here in the past, and a (win) like this was huge. 'Nemo' was there when we needed him. In the first half of the first period, we played real well. If could be back to grinding them down deep in their end, they eventually will wear down, and that was the case," Joe Thornton said.

"We came out in the first period with a pretty good effort, and they ramped their intensity up and we didn't match it," Coyotes forward Shane Doan said.

The Coyotes had won three straight games against the Sharks at Jobing.com Arena and had not lost at home in the series in more than two years, since March 26, 2011, but those came with Mike Smith in the net. Smith did not play because of a lower-body injury.

"He just came in this morning and said he couldn't play," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "We didn't think it was going to be an issue, but it ended up being an issue."

The Coyotes' best scoring chance came when Mikkel Boedker hit the post over Niemi's right shoulder with about eight minutes left in the first period. Niemi also smothered a shot by David Moss with about five minutes left in the opening period.

"We don't have enough players impacting the outcome of the game in a positive way," Tippett said. "We have too many players who are just taking up a spot right now."

The Coyotes have been shut out seven times this season, the sixth time in the last 20 games.

NOTES: Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith, who had shut out the Sharks in four of his last six starts against them, did not dress because of a lower-body injury. Smith blanked San Jose on March 10, 2012 and March 29, 2012, stopping 80 shots combined, and is 5-0-1 with a 0.97 goals-against average in the last six against them. Smith missed six full games after absorbing a hard hit in a 2-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on March 21 but had played the last four, starting with a 4-0 shutout against the Colorado Avalanche on April 6. ... The Coyotes recalled goaltender Chad Johnson to back up LaBarbera. Phoenix also added forward Nick Johnson, as Lauri Korpikoski (upper body) missed his 10th straight game. ... Forward Raffi Torres, sent to the Sharks by the Coyotes at the trade deadline, played his former team for the first time. ... Veteran Sharks captain Joe Thornton has set several career milestones in Arizona -- first NHL game (Oct, 8, 1997), 500th point (Feb. 12, 2006) and 1,000th point (April 8, 2011).
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