NEW YORK -- This was one the goalie stole, plain and simple.

Sharks netminder Antti Niemi played his strongest game of the season Sunday, blanking the New York Rangers 1-0 with a 41-save performance.

True, the victory didn't happen without Logan Couture's unassisted, short-handed goal at 11:48 of the first period. But even he knew where the credit should go for the Sharks' sixth consecutive victory.

"Unbelievable," Couture said of Niemi's play. "He's the reason why we won. We won this game because of how he played."

The shutout was Niemi's fourth of the season and second in his past four starts. He credited the Olympic break -- where he was a member of Team Finland, but did not play -- with helping him elevate his game since returning to the NHL.

"I think it was great for my mind, not playing, but still skating and feeling the puck," he said. "I skated, but I knew I didn't have to play tomorrow. It was almost like a vacation being there."

Niemi lost his first start after the break, but is 5-0 since then with a .946 save percentage that's well above his .915 stat for the season. His greatest test came throughout a first period that Sharks coach Todd McLellan predicted could be a problem.

The Sharks had Saturday off and the early starting time Sunday meant there was no morning skate. That had McLellan concerned about his team's start and those concerns turned out to be justified.

New York came out flying and fired 20 shots on Niemi, many of them set up by crisp passes behind the play that often spell trouble for any goalie.


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But Niemi stopped all of them, looking more agile than he has much of this season. He twice robbed New York forward Derek Brassard on back-door plays and made his most dramatic save when he darted in front of a shot by Mats Zuccarello in the slot after a feed from Martin St. Louis.

"It's kind of fun when you make a couple big saves early," Niemi said. "They keep you warm. I felt great after the first, being warm and reading the puck."

And the save on Zuccarello?

"The one from the middle, I kind of saw it coming," Niemi said, unable to explain why some games it's easier to anticipate plays than others.

Zuccarello also played a role in the short-handed goal by Couture that came with Scott Hannan in the penalty box for tripping New York forward Rick Nash. A giveaway by Zuccarello sent Couture down the ice with Brad Richards, a Rangers forward playing the point on the power play, in pursuit.

Couture skated around Richards en route to the net and managed to lift a backhand over goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

"Richards was skating forward so I thought I could beat him to the outside. He was kind of on my back and I was just able to get it up around Lundqvist," Couture said. "He takes the bottom away and you've got to get it up top if you're going to score."

That goal held up as the winner, but not without other key saves by Niemi and a crucial video review that went San Jose's way with 1:08 left in the second period on a wraparound attempt by Rangers forward Carl Hagelin.

For McLellan, the shutout was a statement game by Niemi to his teammates.

"He said 'I'm Nemo, I'm capable of doing this,'" McLellan said. "Not that he's been weak by any means. He's been a very solid goaltender. But that was a heck of a performance. He just basically said to his teammates, 'You guys are getting ready and playing hard. I am too.' And he proved it."

  • The victory gave the Sharks four consecutive road wins for the first time all season.

  • Raffi Torres missed his fourth game with what McLellan is describing as general soreness.

    For more on the Sharks, see David Pollak's Working the Corners blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/sharks. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/PollakOnSharks.

    Tuesday's game
    Florida (25-35-8) at Sharks (45-17-7), 7:30 p.m., CSNCA