Milan Michalek scored the San Jose Sharks' eventual winning goal on a graceful give-and-go sequence. It looked much like many other big scoring plays by the overall NHL leaders this season, except for the unlikely identity of the giver.
Michalek converted a shockingly slick setup pass from 6-foot-6 defenseman Alexei Semenov, and Evgeni Nabokov made 31 saves while the Sharks moved past Detroit again atop the league standings with their third home victory in four days, 3-1 over the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday night.
With the Sharks stretched to the limits of their depth by several key injuries and the first-period ejection of Jonathan Cheechoo for boarding, Semenov returned to the lineup after two healthy scratches with just the second multipoint game of the wide-wingspanned Russian's career.
Semenov was rewarded with a faceful of shaving cream from a prankster teammate during a postgame interview, but after getting the goop out of his eyes, he remained thrilled to contribute during San Jose's playoff chase.
"I saw (Michalek) going to the net, and it was just tic-tac-toe," Semenov said with a shrug belying the play's difficulty. "Sometimes when you don't play for two or three games, it's tough to give your best game, but the team needs me to step up while (Rob) Blake is out. We're getting close to the end here."
Semenov also assisted on Jamie McGinn's goal earlier in the second period while getting a rare turn on the Sharks' power play. His slap shot from the point was tipped in by McGinn, who hadn't scored a goal in 23 games since Nov. 4 while shuttling between San Jose and the club's AHL affiliate in Worcester.
Such surprisingly capable fill-in play is the main reason why the Sharks have moved one point in front of Detroit atop the overall standings despite an injury list rivaling the length of the healthy roster. Blake, the 39-year-old star defenseman, was the latest subtraction after Saturday's win over Dallas, though he shouldn't be out much longer.
"Considering the bodies (out of the lineup) and the amount of hockey we've played, I was pleased," coach Todd McLellan said. "It's a good time for our organization when that many players come up and make an impact."
Devin Setoguchi added an empty-net goal, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic also had two assists for San Jose, which took advantage of an unusual cluster of Shark Tank appearances to get back in the race for the franchise's first Presidents' Trophy.
With their fifth win in six games, the Sharks improved their NHL-leading home record to 30-3-4 and earned their 106th point, two off the team record and one more than Detroit in the NHL standings. Both teams have 10 games left.
"For sure we want to finish first, because that gives you the best playoff position," Michalek said. "It's down to the end now, so we've got to try to get every point to be sure we have a chance."
Longtime Sharks defenseman Scott Hannan scored his first goal of the season for the last-place Avalanche, who lost their fourth straight and 11th in 14 games despite several good late chances and a full game of solid play against San Jose's injury-shuffled scoring lines.
Andrew Raycroft stopped 25 shots for Colorado just three days after the club's 8-1 loss to Edmonton — the worst home defeat in franchise history.
"We competed better than we did the other night," left wing Ryan Smyth said. "We got the puck deep and had plenty of chances, but it was a special teams game. They capitalized on their power plays, and we did not. It's a privilege to be on the power play, and we just didn't have it tonight."
The Sharks lost Cheechoo when he drove defenseman Lawrence Nycholat headfirst into the boards in a corner near the Colorado net. Nycholat was down on the ice for several moments before skating to the dressing room under his own power.
San Jose killed off the ensuing 5-minute major power play with unsurprising ease against an Avalanche roster with the NHL's second-worst road power play.
"From start to finish, we played solid," said Colorado coach Tony Granato, a former Sharks forward. "They are No. 1 for a reason. We had our opportunities, but another reason they are so good is their goalie. Nabokov played well all the way."
Colorado played the third period without right wing Marek Svatos, who also injured his head at some point in the second period. Granato said the Avalanche would know more after returning to Denver.
Ruslan Salei returned to Colorado's lineup after a two-game absence with a foot injury, but Nabokov stopped him on a breakaway when he stepped out of the penalty box with about nine minutes to play.