SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -- For six weeks, the Phoenix Coyotes have
been sneaking up the Pacific Division standings behind the San Jose
On Thursday night, the Sharks pushed the Coyotes back down -- and
took a big step toward the first division title in franchise
Mike Rathje had a goal and an assist for the Sharks (41-25-8-3,
93 points). San Jose rallied from an early deficit and some
lackluster play to earn a critical victory over the Coyotes, who
are an NHL-best 12-3-1-2 since the Olympic break.
The surprising Coyotes (37-25-9-6) and the Los Angeles Kings
(37-25-11-4) are still within striking distance with 89 points
apiece, but San Jose moved an important step closer to putting its
first title banner in the rafters of the Shark Tank.
"We knew it was a big game, but for the last 10 games, every
game has been huge," said Scott Thornton, who had two assists.
"We've lost a couple of big games, and Phoenix has been creeping
up the standings. Everybody knew what was at stake."
It was the third consecutive victory for the Sharks, who wrap up a
six-game homestand Saturday against Detroit. San Jose needs just
three points in its final five games to improve its point total for
the sixth consecutive season.
With a division title in sight, the Sharks finally might have
something to show for a half-decade of steady building.
"We haven't seen Phoenix for a while," Sharks assistant coach
Rich Preston said. "We wanted to make a statement against a
division rival, and we did."
Though the game was likely the Sharks' most important this
season, they struggled in the first 30 minutes. But after tough guy
Andrei Nazarov scored early in the second period to put the Coyotes
up 2-1, the Sharks answered with four consecutive goals.
Patrick Marleau tied it with a goal through traffic, and Selanne
put the Sharks ahead with an expertly placed shot for his
team-leading 27th goal.
Ricci added his 19th goal on a picture-perfect give-and-go with
Thornton. Captain Owen Nolan scored in the third period for the
Sharks, who won for the fifth time in seven games.
"We've been winning games, but let's be honest -- we've won
games where we haven't played great hockey for 60 minutes for a
long time," said Phoenix goalie Sean Burke, who made 25 saves.
"Tonight, we probably got what we deserved."
Rookie Branko Radivojevic scored and Michal Handzus had two
assists for Phoenix, which lost for just the second time in six
games. The Coyotes are two points behind Chicago for the fourth
playoff spot and home-ice advantage in the first round.
"I'm not so concerned about ground (in the division) right
now," Phoenix coach Bob Francis said. "Right now, we have to ask
ourselves where we're at, and what we need to improve upon. They
worked hard, and outworked us."
But the Sharks showed more nervousness than the Coyotes in the
opening minutes. A turnover by Selanne and sloppy defensive
coverage gave two breakaways to Phoenix's Ladislav Nagy within 20
seconds, but Nabokov stopped both attempts.
"He stood on his head and kept us in it," Ricci said of
Nabokov. "He probably won the game for us."
Moments later, Radivojevic scored on a two-on-one break. The Sharks
answered midway through the period with the fourth goal for Rathje,
who has matched the best offensive season of his career with 16
points despite missing the first 28 games in a holdout.
Rathje has had just 11 multiple-point games in his nine-season
career, but three of them came this season against the Coyotes.
Marleau has scored in each of the five games so far on the
Sharks' homestand, recording five goals and four assists. ...
Thornton has a career-best 38 points. ... Vincent Damphousse
assisted on Nolan's goal for his 1,100th point, passing Glenn
Anderson for 45th place on the NHL's career list.