SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP)—Jonathan Cheechoo is too young for true nostalgia. Still, the formerly fearsome San Jose forward’s last several games have felt an awful lot like the good old days of 2006.
He’s back on a line with Joe Thornton, the passing machine who fed pucks into his wheelhouse during his Richard Trophy-winning campaign. And although they haven’t yet connected for a score, Cheechoo is still getting key goals during a playoff chase as the Sharks stumble toward the top of the NHL standings.
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. After 45 scoreless minutes, San Jose prevailed with its second home shootout winner in six days from Cheechoo, who hasn’t scored a regulation goal in 13 games.
Cheechoo feels his fortunes have mirrored the Sharks’ struggles over the past few weeks: plenty of hard work counterbalanced by too many mistakes, leaving too little to show for it. He also got hit with an iffy interference penalty that led to Phoenix’s decisive power-play goal in a loss to the Coyotes two days earlier, leaving him hustling for redemption throughout a strong game against the Predators.
“I’ve got some chances, but I’ve been getting chances for a while now, so I’ve got to start putting them in,” said Cheechoo, who read rookie goalie Pekka Rinne’s movements and picked a spot for his high backhand. “I’m happy with the way we played. We’ve just got to keep moving forward, keep building on this.”
Joe Pavelski, whose giveaway resulted in Nashville’s second goal, also beat Rinne before Cheechoo, who got the winner against Los Angeles in the seventh round Saturday.
“Cheech had a spark in him that we’ve seen throughout the year, but not on a consistent basis,” coach Todd McLellan said. “It makes me excited to come to the rink tomorrow and put him back on that line (with Thornton and Patrick Marleau), because he’s earned it.”
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.
“Both teams played with pretty good intensity,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “We had a great chance with two minutes to go. Legwand had the breakaway and got the puck off the rebound, and shot it out the back door, sort of. If we’d scored there, you never know.”
San Jose clinched the Pacific Division title and a playoff spot during the past few days, but the Sharks’ three weeks of lackluster 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.
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 broken 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. … F Ryan Vesce made his third appearance of the season for the Sharks, who recalled him from the minors earlier Thursday.