SAN JOSE — Having completed their long climb from 12th to second place in the Western Conference in the final three months of the regular season, the San Jose Sharks can now start looking ahead to the most important time of year.
Joe Pavelski scored his 20th goal of the season and Antti Niemi made 35 saves as the Sharks wrapped up the No. 2 seed in the playoffs with a 3-1 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday night.
“We’ve come a long way,” captain Joe Thornton said. “We had to work hard to get where we are. It’s been quite a year, going from 12th to second. We had to do a lot of good things to make up that ground and it’s satisfying. But we still have a lot of work to do.”
Ian White and Logan Couture also scored for the Sharks, who are assured of home-ice advantage for at least the first two rounds. The Sharks will not know their first-round opponent until after Chicago’s season finale against Detroit on Sunday.
But they felt good knowing they are heading into the postseason on a winning note, especially having pulled out the kind of tight game that will be the norm in the coming weeks.
“It’s good to get back and play in one of these games because there’s a lot of nights that this is how it’s going to go,” Pavelski said.
The Coyotes missed out on a chance to finish fourth in the conference and having home ice for the first round. Depending on Sunday’s results, Phoenix could meet the Sharks again in the first round, having lost nine of 10 games to their Pacific Division rivals.
“We knew there was a lot at stake for us,” coach Dave Tippett said. “We had a chance to get home ice and it didn’t come to be. Our fate will be decided tomorrow in watching that Detroit-Chicago game before the seedings are set. We’ll just have to wait to see what it brings.”
The Coyotes got their lone goal when Lauri Korpikoski blocked Jason Demers’ point shot and went in all alone on Niemi and beat him with a wrist shot for his 19th goal with 11:24 remaining.
But Couture put the game away when he scored his 32nd goal on the power play with just 1:31 to go — just seconds after Ilya Bryzgalov robbed Thornton with a spectacular, sprawling save.
The Sharks broke up a scoreless game with two goals in the second. The first came after a relentless shift when they kept the puck in the offensive zone for more than a minute. Bryzgalov made tough saves on Dany Heatley and Kyle Wellwood, but the Coyotes were unable to clear the puck.
White then fired a shot from the point that beat Bryzgalov for his second goal in as many nights after failing to score in his first 21 games with San Jose.
“That that was a great momentum shift for us,” White said. “Fortunately, one of them went in.”
San Jose added its second goal late in the period with Martin Hanzal was sent off for roughing. Pavelski got the puck in front of the net and beat Bryzgalov with a shot just before being flattened by Shane Doan to make it 2-0. The goal made the Sharks the only team in the league with seven 20-goal scorers.
Niemi made sure the game stayed that way heading into the third when he made a sharp stop on Radim Vrbata in the closing seconds of the period with Phoenix on the power play.
“Wow, was he good,” coach Todd McLellan said. “When we made mistakes, he was there to make some tremendous saves. I thought the guy at the other end, Bryzgalov, was also very good. That’s playoff goaltending”
The Coyotes had the better of the play early in a scoreless first period, recording the first six shots of the game. But the Sharks had the best chance early when Bryzgalov stopped Scott Nichol from right in front of the net with a pad save.
Phoenix’s best chance of the period was thwarted when Jason Demers made a diving breakup of a breakaway attempt by Doan in the closing minutes of the first.
“I think we started the game pretty well,” Korpikoski said. “We got a couple power plays and didn’t score on those. The fact that we didn’t get the first goal was the big difference today.”
spo McLellan tied Mike Keenan with the most wins in his first three seasons with 152. … Bryzgalov started 38 of the final 40 games of the season. … F Devin Setoguchi played for SanJose a night after being a late scratch because of cramping in pregame warmups. … The Sharks recalled F Benn Ferriero from Worcester (AHL) and sent Fs Andrew Desjardins and Brandon Mashinter back to the minors. … Niemi was honored as Sharks player of the year, while Couture won the award for top rookie.