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Analysis: NHL's Pacific Division

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Analysis: NHL's Pacific Division

Its the quarter point of the NHL regular season, and the Pacific Division is as tight as ever...except for Anaheim.

At the start of the year it would have been logical to think that the division would be a two-team race between the Sharks and Kings. San Jose and Los Angeles improved their rosters on paper in the offseason with some key acquisitions, while Phoenix and Dallas lost big name free agents and Anaheim was stagnant.

So far, that hasnt been the case. While the Ducks have faltered badly, the Stars and Coyotes are right in the thick of the race with the Sharks and Kings. On Wednesday morning, all of two points separated the first from the fourth spot, and it changes on a nightly basis.

RELATED: NHL standings

Heres a brief look at where each of the four other Pacific Division teams stands.

Anahiem Ducks (6-13-4, 16 points)
The Anaheim Ducks started the year with three wins in their first four games including sweeping a home-and-home with the Sharks. Since then? Anaheim is 3-11-4 and mired in last place in the Pacific. They have lost five in a row, and are tied with the Islanders for worst goal differential in the NHL (-26).

Just about everything has gone wrong for the Ducks since mid-October. Jonas Hiller, returning from missing the second half of last season with vertigo, has been terrible, with a 3.32 goals-against average and .897 save percentage. Last years MVP Corey Perry has 10 goals, but Ryan Getzlaf has just four. Bobby Ryans name is being mentioned in several trade rumors, and there is also talk that head coach Randy Carlyle could be on his way out.

The stats tell the story. The Ducks have just 2.13 goals per game (29th), while surrendering 3.17 per game (26th). This isnt the way Teemu Selanne envisioned his final season.

Dallas Stars (14-9-1, 29 points)
The Stars were one of the bigger surprises in the NHL when they stormed out to an 11-3-0 start, despite losing Brad Richards to the Rangers in the offseason. That came to a screeching halt when all of a sudden they couldnt find the scoreboard and lost five in a row, ending with the 4-1 loss to San Jose on home ice on Nov. 19. Theyve rebounded since then, going 3-1-1 in their last five.

Dallas has dealt with a few injuries on its roller coaster ride. Starting goaltender Kari Lehtonen is out for up to a month with a groin injury never good for a goaltender and journeyman Andrew Raycroft is now in the spotlight. Captain Brenden Morrow has also been out recently with an upper body injury, but could return on Thursday night.

Jamie Benn leads Dallas with 23 points, while Loui Eriksson is their top scorer with 10 goals.

Phoenix Coyotes (13-7-3, 29 points)
Like the Stars, the Coyotes lost perhaps their best player in the offseason when Ilya Bryzgalov went to Philadelphia. No matter. Mike Smith has 12 wins, a 2.35 goals-against average and is fifth in the NHL with a .935 save percentage. The Coyotes are once again in the middle of the race when it would have been easy to write them off especially after watching them lose 6-3 on opening night in San Jose.

Phoenix has something in common with the Sharks, as they have been one of the NHLs best road teams. The Coyotes went into Chicago on Thursday and skated out with an impressive 4-1 win over the Blackhawks, improving to 7-3-1 away from Jobing.com Arena.

The Coyotes defense is anchored by one of the most underrated players in the league in Keith Yandle, while Radim Vrbata and Ray Whitney (21 points apiece) lead the offense. Phoenix could get a small boost from the return of Kyle Turris, who finally signed with the club after a contract dispute. Turris could debut as early as Thursday night.

One big reason for Phoenixs success? Staying out of the penalty box. The Coyotes have just 8.2 penalty minutes per game, the fewest in the NHL, and own the fourth best penalty kill in the league (89.0 percent). That being said, they would like to improve on their 28th ranked power play (12.0 pecent).

Los Angeles Kings (12-8-4, 28 points)
The Kings have improved since getting off to a so-so start, after being a popular pick in the offseason to unseat the Sharks at the top of the Pacific Division. That could certainly still happen, of course, as the Kings star players are all starting to find their games.

On offense, the dynamic Anze Kopitar is still the primary threat with 24 points. Right behind him, though, is Mike Richards, who already has nine goals since the start of the month, tying him with Jonathan Toews for the most in November. Richards is looking every bit like the player Dean Lombardi thought he was acquiring from Philadelphia in that blockbuster trade this summer.

Drew Doughty has just seven points in 19 games, less than what hes used to, but that may be a case of an abbreviated training camp for the star defenseman whose contract dispute cost him to miss most of training camp.

Jonathan Quicks four shutouts, including Monday against the Sharks, lead the NHL.

Sharks winger Joonas Donskoi has officially arrived

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AP

Sharks winger Joonas Donskoi has officially arrived

It turns out the top-six winger the Sharks needed to replace Patrick Marleau was on the roster all along.

Joonas Donskoi skated on Logan Couture’s line in Monday night’s shootout loss to the Ducks, and was San Jose’s best player. He scored the Sharks’ only two goals, and tied for the team-lead among forwards with four shots on net.

Donskoi added another goal in the ninth-round shootout, but his two goals in regulation were his sixth and seventh on the season. With those goals, he surpassed his total from an injury-riddled campaign a year ago, and stands three tallies clear as San Jose’s second-leading goal-scorer this season.

Due to Melker Karlsson’s injury, Donskoi skated with the Sharks’ leading goal-scorer, Logan Couture, and rekindled the strong chemistry the pair has shown since the Finnish winger arrived in San Jose in 2015.

Of the nine lines Couture has skated on for at least 50 minutes dating back to the beginning of the 2015-16 season, the three best in terms of puck possession have had Donskoi on his wing. Those three combinations have controlled at least 54 percent of the five-on-five shot attempts, according to Corsica Hockey.

Adding Tomas Hertl, who’s already a strong possession player, to that line bodes well for an even stronger second line moving forward. With Karlsson on the wing, the line controlled only 47.7 percent of the shot attempts, per Corsica, meaning the Sharks have been routinely out-possessed with them on the ice.

That was not the case with Donskoi in Karlsson’s place, as Donskoi posted positive possession numbers alongside Couture and Hertl on Monday, according to Natural Stat Trick. The results were there, as evidenced by the game’s opening goal, but it’s a good sign that the process was, too.

The same, frankly, can be said of Donskoi’s entire season up to this point. He likely won’t convert on over 18 percent of his shots all season, of course, but the Sharks have the puck more often than their opponents when he’s on the ice, and should continue to generate pressure, chances, and ultimately goals, even if Donskoi’s personal scoring comes down.

When Karlsson comes back, Donskoi should remain on Couture and Hertl’s line. That would allow the former to slide into a role better-suited to his game, and the latter to bolster San Jose’s top-six forward group.

Donskoi’s earned an extended look in that spot thanks to his resurgence, and subsequent emergence, this season. Thanks to him, replacing Marleau’s production suddenly seems much less daunting.

Two Donskoi goals not enough as Sharks fall to Ducks in shootout

Two Donskoi goals not enough as Sharks fall to Ducks in shootout

BOX SCORE

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Antoine Vermette beat goalie Martin Jones in the ninth round of a shootout to give the Anaheim Ducks a 3-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks on Monday night.

Corey Perry, Cam Fowler and Brandon Montour also scored during the tiebreaker for Anaheim.

Joonas Donskoi, Tim Heed and Brent Burns had shootout goals for the Sharks. Tomas Hertl missed his attempt in the ninth round, leaving Vermette a chance to win it.

Perry and Rickard Rakell scored in regulation for the Ducks. Reto Berra made 40 saves in his first start of the season.

Donskoi had two goals for the Sharks, including the tying score in the third period. Jones stopped 28 shots.

Donskoi helped create his own goal by knocking the puck away from a Ducks defender and getting it to Logan Couture for a give-and-go as the Sharks took a 1-0 lead 3:31 into the game.

The Ducks came back in the second period to even the score 45 seconds in. After winning a faceoff in the San Jose zone, Brandon Montour sent a sharp pass to Perry's stick. Perry settled it and fired into the net for the equalizer.

Rakell gave the Ducks a 2-1 advantage midway through the second, just as a power play ended. Perry took a shot that bounced off Jones' pads, and Rakell knocked it into the net before Jones could cover up.

The Sharks snapped an 0-for-17 streak on the power play with a goal midway through the third to tie it. Donskoi tracked down a rebound and flipped it off Berra's right pad and into the net for his second career multi-goal game.

NOTES: Ducks D Cam Fowler returned to action after missing 12 games with a knee injury. ... Sharks C Melker Karlsson missed the game with an upper-body injury. ... Sharks forward Kevin Labanc, who hasn't played much recently, started on the top line with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski. Donskoi was moved to the second line. ... Ducks G Ryan Miller missed the game with a lower-body injury. Berra made his fourth appearance this season. ... Perry has seven points in his last five games. ... Rakell has a point in seven of his past eight games, with a total of 11 during that span. ... The Sharks scored their second power-play goal in eight November games.

UP NEXT

Ducks: Host the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday.

Sharks: Play at the Arizona Coyotes on Wednesday.