SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP)—With several Sharks shooting a T-shirt gun into the stands and others tossing jerseys to the sellout crowd Tuesday night, it was tough to remember back when San Jose was the Los Angeles Kings’ favorite place to play.
The Sharks are no longer pushovers on their own pond, and that’s one big reason they’re headed to the playoffs after the best regular season in franchise history.
Evgeni Nabokov made 16 saves in his NHL-leading 46th victory, and the Sharks gave their fans something to appreciate on Fan Appreciation night, closing out their home schedule with a 5-2 win—their 18th in 20 amazing games.
Milan Michalek scored the go-ahead goal in the second period for the Pacific Division champions, who haven’t lost in regulation since Feb. 20. Mike Grier, captain Patrick Marleau, Curtis Brown and Brian Campbell also scored as the Sharks (49-21-10) earned their 108th point, surpassing last season’s club record of 107 with two games to play.
From their record-challenging goalie to their dangerously balanced scoring attack, the Sharks look nothing like the talented but tentative club that lost three home games to the lowly Kings back in November. After hovering around .500 at the Shark Tank for much of the season, they’ve won eight of nine home games, earning a point every time out since mid-February.
“We obviously started the season real slow at home, but we’ve been on fire here at the end of the year,” said Joe Thornton, who had his NHL-best 66th assist. “Our fans are going to be a big part of our postseason success. We love playing here.”
San Jose also moved within three points of Detroit for the NHL’s best record, though the Red Wings need just one point in their final three games to clinch the Presidents’ Trophy. That award doesn’t mean much to the Sharks, who are content to head to the playoffs on an unmatched roll.
“It’s a hard game when you’ve been playing in games that have a lot of meaning, when the intensity is going to naturally be there,” coach Ron Wilson said. “I had to remind them that there’s still some things on the line.”
Nabokov guaranteed he’ll lead the league in victories this season, moving four wins ahead of New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur. He still has a chance to match Brodeur’s NHL record of 48 victories last season—but Wilson said backup Brian Boucher will start Thursday night in Los Angeles, with Nabokov closing out the season at Dallas on Sunday.
“If I play Nabby in both games looking for a record, that always comes back to haunt you,” Wilson said.
Nabokov, who has played in 75 of the Sharks’ 80 games, is fourth in NHL history behind Brodeur’s 48 victories and the 47 wins compiled by Philadelphia’s Bernie Parent (1973-74)—who did it before shootouts—and Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo (2006-07).
“I’m going to lie if I’m going to tell you I don’t care … but now, all of our goal is to get ready for the playoffs,” Nabokov said. “Whatever Ronnie thinks is right to do, we’re going to do it.”
Patrick O’Sullivan and Raitis Ivanans scored for the Kings as the clubs began a home-and-home series between the NHL’s worst team and its second-best. Erik Ersberg stopped 29 shots for Los Angeles, and the rookie goalie was duly impressed with the Sharks in his first appearance in the rivalry.
“That’s one of the best teams in the league, especially with all that talent,” he said. “It’s not just Joe Thornton. They’ve got some other guys too that can produce. You learn stuff and you take the good things with you to the next game and the next season.”
Even in a one-sided win, the Sharks rested up for the playoffs by playing without forward Jonathan Cheechoo, defenseman Craig Rivet and rookie forward Devin Setoguchi, who all sat out to rest minor injuries. Wilson kept his players’ minutes fairly even, giving bigger rests than normal to Thornton and Campbell, among others.
After Michalek snapped an eight-game goal-scoring drought on a pass from Thornton, Brown and Campbell added late goals, with Campbell scoring during a two-man advantage with 1:01 to play.
“It’s tough to beat that team when you’re playing against their power play all night,” Los Angeles coach Marc Crawford said after his club was called for eight minor penalties to San Jose’s two. “I’m proud of our guys. It was a three-goal difference in the end, (but) it was a one-goal game, and we were right in it.”
Los Angeles LW Kyle Calder missed his fifth straight game with a finger injury, and D Jack Johnson missed his sixth with foot injury. … The clubs finish the season series Thursday night in Los Angeles, where the Sharks will try to finish a four-game sweep at Staples Center. … Thornton’s assist was his 300th point with the Sharks. He has 70 goals and 230 assists in just 220 games with San Jose.