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Sharks-Blue Jackets: What to watch for

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Sharks-Blue Jackets: What to watch for

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Sharks Pregame Live airs tonight at 7, followed by Columbus-Sharks at 7:30, and Sharks Postgame Live immediately following the final horn -- all on Comcast SportsNet California.

SAN JOSE In the first game back from the All-Star break, which for many teams, including San Jose, was an entire week, the focus is straightforward.

Keep it simple, get your legs, your body and mind into it early, and kind of go from there, Patrick Marleau said. The attention to detail is going to be important really early.

Douglas Murray said: Youve got to be sharp from the get-go. A big thing is to get your confidence back, in your skating, your puck handling and your passing. Just try to be as sharp as possible from the beginning, and usually if you feel good about yourself you play good.

The Sharks went into the break on a positive note, with a 1-0 win in Calgary on Jan. 24 that was their first in regulation in five games, ending a 1-3-1 stretch. They lead the Pacific Division by two points, but have three games in hand on the second place Los Angeles Kings.

BRODIE & KEVIN: Finding scoring

San Jose has already beaten the NHLs last place Blue Jackets twice this month, by identical 2-1 scores on Jan. 5 at HP Pavilion and Jan. 14 in Columbus. The Sharks may have an advantage tonight, as Columbus flew across the country on Monday and had an evening practice after touching down.

We practiced hard yesterday and hopefully weve got the rust off. You have to start up again at some point, and its no different from what Columbus is going through. I understand they had to fly and then practice here so thats probably completely out of character for them, Todd McLellan said.
Burns ready, Clowe not: The All-Star game came at the perfect time for defenseman Brent Burns, who looked like he suffered a potentially serious knee injury in Edmonton on Jan. 23. He was limping badly after that game, but walking better the next day, and is good to go after resting up in Hawaii during the All-Star break.

Burns is having a down year offensively, but has points in five of his last nine games and was looking more aggressive in the offensive zone in the weeks leading up to the injury.

Would he like to see his numbers improve in the seasons second half?

I dont think Ive been changing anything. Just the battle of the year, you keep trying to get them in and kind of go through the roller coaster of them going and them not going.

Clowe, however, will miss his sixth straight game while recovering from a facial fracture. His goal is to return in time for Thursdays game against Dallas.

With Clowe and Marty Havlat out, that has obviously hurt the Sharks depth among their forwards.

When youre not as deep, players can get away with it a little bit more. Coaches dont have as many tools to send messages, McLellan said. Were excited about getting both of those guys back eventually. The extended break wont hurt them at all as far as rest and building their bodies back up for the push, but we do miss them.

In other injury news, Jason Demers is out tonight with a lower body injury.
In the crease: Antti Niemi will start for the Sharks, coming off of his third shutout of the season in Calgary one week ago. It was a big game for the goalie, who struggled in his two previous outings before the impressive win over the Flames.

In five career games against Columbus, Niemi is 3-1-0 with a 2.89 goals-against average and .906 save percentage, although he hasnt faced them yet this season. In the two recent wins over the Blue Jackets on Jan. 5 and Jan. 14, it was Thomas Greiss who allowed one goal in a pair of 2-1 Sharks wins.

Curtis Sanford suffered a pair of hard-luck losses against San Jose this season by allowing just four goals in two losses, but it will be Steve Mason in net tonight for the Jackets. In nine career games against the Sharks, Mason is just 3-5-1 but has a solid 2.39 goals-against average and .932 save percentage.
Searching for offense: The Sharks have scored two goals or less in six of their last eight games, and will look to break out of that slump against Columbus, which is 29th in the NHL in goals-against per game (3.22).

One area they could improve upon? Getting those second and third chances in the so-called dirty areas around the net.

If youre getting those second and third opportunities, those are the quality chances, Patrick Marleau said. You can get those first ones, but youve got to have guys battling in and around the paint and getting at those loose rebounds to put a couple home.

McLellan said that the Sharks have been getting plenty of bodies there, but the aggressiveness in that area of the ice could improve.

The fact is, there are people around the net, and sometimes theres two many people around the net, believe it or not. For every two guys we send there, they probably send three, and all of a sudden youve got five players and goaltender. Shots dont get through.

That doesnt mean we cant be better around the net and cant be harder and more determined, and well challenge our team to be that down the stretch.
Odds and ends: Logan Couture has three goals and an assist in his last three games. Columbus will host the 2013 NHL All-Star game. The Blue Jackets are 1-18-1 when trailing entering the third period. Dan Boyle will play in his 800th NHL game; Brent Burns his 500th; and Douglas Murray his 400th. Only Murray has played all of them with the same team. Of San Joses 35 remaining games, 13 are against the Pacific Division and 19 are on the road. Columbus is on pace for just 54 points this season, which would be a franchise-low. The Blue Jackets are a -39 on the road in goal differential.

Sharks face surprisingly tough test in Avalanche

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Sharks face surprisingly tough test in Avalanche

On a night when Eric Lindros is getting his number retired, who would have thought one of the NHL's best games involves a team that was the worst a season ago, and another features a team that didn't even exist last year?

Okay, most of the hockey world's eyes will be glued to tonight's Golden Knights-Lightning tilt in Tampa, which surely felt just as weird to write as it did for you to read. But Sharks-Avalanche could have that game beat, and not just because Long Beach native Matt Nieto will play against his former team.

No, the Sharks and Avalanche just happen to be two of the hottest teams in the league.

San Jose has won three in a row, and along with Nashville, holds the league's third-longest active winning streak. Colorado, meanwhile, has won seven in a row, and along with Calgary, holds the league's longest streak.

The Avalanche have not lost in 2018, and since their streak began on Dec. 29, have scored the third-most goals and allowed the fewest. With starter Semyon Varlamov out with a groin strain, backup netminder Jonathan Bernier has stopped all but seven of the shots he's seen, good for a .962 save percentage.

Nathan Mackinnon has emerged as an under-the-radar Hart Trophy candidate, or at least he would have been under-the-radar if seemingly the entire hockey world hadn't made the same observation. He's no longer a dark horse, though, and may be the frontrunner if Colorado is even sniffing the postseason at the end of the year.

After all, the Avalanche were far closer to the 1992-93 Sharks than Colorado's glory days last season, losing the ninth-most games in a single season in NHL history. Entering Thursday, the Avalanche are just two points out of the final wild card spot.

To further drive home just how remarkable the turnaround's been, the Avalanche already have three more points than last season. In 39 fewer games.

Colorado may not be as good as they've been over the last seven games, when they've also led the league in PDO, the sum of save percentage and shooting percentage often used as a shorthand for luck. But during the stretch, the Avalanche are also a positive puck possession team when adjusting for score and venue, according to Natural Stat Trick, and eighth in adjusted corsi-for percentage during the win streak, per Corsica Hockey.

The Sharks, too, have been playing much better than before the bye. Two of the wins on their three-game streak have come against the cellar-dwelling Coyotes, though, and they needed overtime and a shootout to beat them.

The Avalanche will then represent the toughest test for the Sharks following the week off, and a potentially thorny end to their three-game road trip. Who would have thought? 

Pavelski a shootout hero in midst of a career-worst cold streak

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Pavelski a shootout hero in midst of a career-worst cold streak

The shootout has been kind to Joe Pavelski all season.

After scoring the shootout winner in Tuesday night’s win over the Coyotes, Pavelski has now scored the fourth-most shootout goals in a single season of his career, and there’s still 39 games left in the season. Only Artemi Panarin has scored more shootout goals (four) than the Sharks captain (three) on the year.

The Sharks have needed Pavelski more than they have after 65 minutes far more than in recent memory. San Jose’s won three games in the shootout this season, one more than last year and one shy from matching their total from the prior two seasons.

Again, there’s still 39 games to go.

San Jose is on pace to win their most games in the shootout since the Todd McLellan era, when they picked up no fewer than five shootout wins each season. This season, those wins are currently the difference between home ice advantage in the first round, as the Sharks are tied for second in the Pacific with two games in hand, and missing the playoffs.

They’ve needed every one of Pavelski’s shootout goals, too. File this under “statistics that are too good to be true,” but the proven postseason performer has scored each of his three shootout goals in San Jose’s three shootout wins, while failing to score in both of their losses.

Pavelski’s needed to deliver in the shootout at least in part because he often has not delivered when actual hockey’s been played. Injuries, age, and an at-times unfathomable lack of luck have all contributed, but the Wisconsin product is in the midst of one of the longest scoring droughts of his career.

He’s not scored an even strength goal since Dec. 1 against Florida. For those keeping score at home, that’s 19 games, a month, and a calendar change ago.

If Pavelski doesn’t score at even strength on Thursday against Colorado, he’ll have matched the longest even strength goal-scoring drought of his career. In 2010-11 and the lockout-shortened 2013 season, Pavelski went 20 games without an even strength tally.

To further put things into perspective, is tied with Joe Thornton and Melker Karlsson for sixth on the team in even strength goals. Thornton’s enjoyed a nice shooting resurgence, but this is an instance where the setup man scoring as much as the sniper is not a positive development.

You can’t only fault for Pavelski for struggling so much, of course, as his team has scored the second-fewest even strength goals in the league this year. He’s also a victim of his own success, and subject to further outsized expectations because of the letter on his chest.

Tuesday showed Pavelski’s still found ways to contribute, even if he hasn’t found the back of the net at even strength. But if Pavelski’s drought lasts beyond Thursday, he’ll be on an unprecedented schnide as far as his career is concerned.

More performances like the former may ultimately be enough to get the Sharks into the postseason. More like the latter won’t get them much farther than that.