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Sharks-Blues: What to watch for

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Sharks-Blues: What to watch for

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Get prepared for the Sharks and Blues with Sharks Pregame Live, airing at 7 p.m. The puck drops at 7:30 and stick around for Sharks Postgame Live immediately following the final horn -- all on Comcast SportsNet California.

SAN JOSE The St. Louis Blues will try for a season sweep of the Sharks when the teams meet for the fourth and final time tonight at HP Pavilion.

San Jose is coming off of a pair of 1-0 games, beating the Flyers on Tuesday but losing to Buffalo on Thursday. Goals will likely be at a premium vs. the Blues, too, as St. Louis allows just 1.91 goals-per-game, leading the league. The Blues were also shut out on Thursday, 2-0 in Vancouver.

The Sharks are eighth in GAA at 2.49, improving drastically in the last two games from their horrible road trip in which they allowed 35 goals over nine games.

They dont give up a lot of goals or a lot of chances. Well have to make ourselves work for our chances tonight, thats for sure, Ryane Clowe said.

Assistant coach Jay Woodcroft, who, with Matt Shaw, may have to fill in again for an injured Todd McLellan tonight, said: They play a heavy, mans type of game. Theyre going to make you earn everything, and they dont give you anything for free.

The Sharks have been shut out in their last two games against the Blues, both in St. Louis, 1-0 on Dec. 10 and 3-0 on Feb. 12 in the first game of the road trip.

The Sharks will almost certainly be getting a boost to their lineup. Logan Couture, who leads the Sharks with 27 goals, is set to return from an apparent knee injury suffered last Sunday in Minnesota. The 22-year-old missed his first two games of the season, but was back on the ice for Saturdays morning skate.

Theyre a tough team to play, said Couture of St. Louis. They come hard on the forecheck. Great defensive team, havent given up many goals all year. To beat them you have to play one of the best games weve played all year. Hopefully, we can step up tonight.

Defenseman Douglas Murray may also return. Murray, who has missed the last eight games with a fractured Adams apple, said my guess is Ill be playing pretty soon, when asked if hes ready.

RELATED: Couture set to return, Murray possible
Special teams play: Of the four goals the Sharks surrendered in their last two losses to the Blues, three of them came while they were down two men.

Conversely, the Sharks are a combined 0-for-10 on the power play. Its a facet of their game that will play a huge role against the stingy Blues.

All the games have come down to burying your scoring chances when theyre available. We think we can do a better job in the special teams area, Woodcroft said. Weve given up three five-on-three goals against them, so were going to have to check smart and stay out of the box.

The Sharks power play had been red hot from late-January through the recently completed road tip. In the last two games, though, it is a combined 0-for-3 and failed to score in consecutive games for the first time since Jan. 17-19.

San Jose is still fourth in the league with a 21.0 percent success rate.

Niemi vs. Halak: Antti Niemi has returned to form in the last two games, allowing just one goal in the last two starts after he was as bad as anyone on the nine-game road trip.

In eight career games against St. Louis, Niemi is 4-4-0 with a 2.53 goals-against average and .919 save percentage. In his last 17 starts, Niemi is 6-9-1 with 2.77 GAA and .902 SP. Hes allowed four-plus goals six times, but also has three shutouts.

For the Blues, Jaroslav Halak gets the call. He made 25 saves in a shutout performance against the Sharks in St. Louis on Feb. 12. In six career appearances against the Sharks, hes 3-2-0 with a 2.55 goals-against average and .924 save percentage.

Halak and teammate Brian Elliott are tied for third in the league with six shutouts apiece.

Hitch hockey: The Blues are 34-11-7 under Ken Hitchcock since the head coach took over 52 games ago. They trail Detroit by just two points for the lead in the Central Division, and are challenging for the top seed in the Western Conference.

Former Sharks forward Scott Nichol was asked how the Blues have been able to achieve such success after missing the playoffs last year.

I think we have big forwards that protect the puck real well, Nichol said. We can skate, and we have a couple offensive defensemen on our team that can move the puck real well, same as these guys. Its a really similar team. I think in the Western Conference, you have to be like that.

For the scuffling Sharks, tonight is an opportunity to remind themselves they can play with the big boys in the their conference.

Theyve been in the hottest team in the league since Hitch took over there, Clowe said. We need a game like that tonight to get us back on track. Just a sound game against a real good team. Its going to be a great test and we all know that. Weve got to pass that test.

If we can create some chances, well prove to ourselves that were a dominant team, too."

Odds and ends: St. Louis had its four-game winning streak snapped on Thursday. Brian Elliott has lost three straight, but has given up just seven goals in that span. The Sharks have just 15 goals in their last eight games (2-6-0). Antti Niemi has stopped 44 of 45 shots in the last two games. The Blues still are missing Alexander Steen (concussion), Matt D'Agostini (concussion), Kris Russell (concussion), and Jamie Langenbrunner (broken foot).

Sharks have tall task avoiding holiday hangover in Vegas

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AP

Sharks have tall task avoiding holiday hangover in Vegas

Once they entered the league, many joked that the Vegas Golden Knights would have the best home-ice advantage in the league.

Sure, the novelty of a new team would get fans excited, but it was the team’s presence on the Las Vegas Strip that would give the expansion team an edge. After all, they call it “Sin City” for a reason, and it’s not for the ride in.

Nobody could have expected them to be this good at home.

The Golden Knights are 8-1-0 at T-Mobile Arena, and have the league’s highest winning percentage at home. They’ve outscored opponents by 18 goals, and their 4.33 goals per home game is the third-best mark in the entire league.

The Sharks will thus face their toughest road test of the season on Friday night, in a game that they’re almost designed to lose. Early afternoon games mean there’s no morning skate, but an early afternoon game the day after Thanksgiving? In Las Vegas?

Blackjack players have better luck hitting on 20.

In fact, Vegas’ home slate is littered with early starts: 12 of their 41 home games occur before the traditional 7-or-7:30 p.m. slot. Some of that is undoubtedly due to travel, of course, as the Sharks will play on the first night of a back-to-back on Friday.

But the effect is nonetheless apparent: T-Mobile Arena has become a fortress.

The same can be said about any number of arenas in cities known for their nightlife, such as the Miami Heat’s home at American Airlines Arena, located less than 10 miles from South Beach. Vegas is another matter entirely.

It doesn’t help that the Golden Knights have, home ice advantage aside, played like a playoff team. Adjusting for score effects and venue, Vegas ranks 13th and ninth, respectively, in the two major puck possession metrics: corsi-for percentage (shot attempts) and fenwick-for percentage (unblocked shot attempts).

They’ve also had luck that gamblers on the strip would envy, thriving despite being down to fourth-string goaltender Maxime Lagace because of injuries to the goalies ahead of him. Vegas has played extremely well in front of him in spite of that, and have won three straight since getting shellacked in Edmonton 10 days ago.

In spite of almost every piece of available logic heading into the season, the Vegas Golden Knights are good. Almost every piece, of course, because their home-ice advantage is simultaneously the most logical thing in the world.

In Las Vegas, it usually doesn’t pay to bet against the house.

Sharks should be thankful for these two players on Thanksgiving

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USATSI

Sharks should be thankful for these two players on Thanksgiving

The San Jose Sharks woke up this Thanksgiving and found themselves in a playoff spot, albeit barely. 

They hold the second and final wild card spot by the thinnest of margins, edging out the Colorado Avalanche not on points, games played, regulation and overtime wins, but a single goal in the goal differential column. 

As early as it is, it’s a critical time to be in playoff position. Since the NHL expanded to 30 teams in 2000, 79 percent of teams holding playoff spots on Thanksgiving made the postseason. 

If the Sharks avoid becoming a member of the dreaded 21 percent, they’ll have two players to thank, more than anyone else, for their good fortune: Logan Couture and Martin Jones. 

Couture, along with Joonas Donskoi, seems to be the only Shark unaffected by a team-wide scoring bug. Even as he’s cooled off slightly, his 11 goals are still tied for 10th-most in the league. 

He’s held a positive share of puck possession on the ice, despite starting the fourth-lowest percentage of his shifts in the offensive zone among Sharks forwards that have played at least 50 minutes this season, according to Corsica Hockey

Couture also leads the team in power play scoring with three goals, and is one of only three San Jose players that’s scored multiple times on the man advantage. It’s hard to imagine the league’s fourth-worst power play (15.1 percent) getting worse, but it undoubtedly would be without the 28-year-old.

While Couture has stood out among a hapless offense, Jones has led one of the league’s best defensive units. The Sharks are among the best teams at limiting shots and scoring chances across all situations, but Jones has not let them down. 

Although his .922 even-strength save percentage is 27th among 51 goalies that have played at least 200 minutes, San Jose’s given him a razor thin margin of error. He had the fifth-lowest goal support of any goalie entering last night, as statistician Darin Stephens noted, and his play has been good enough to keep the Sharks in games in spite of that. 

Jones has also led the way for the league’s best penalty kill, posting a .940 save percentage in shorthanded situations. That’s the best mark among goalies that have faced at least 80 shots on the penalty kill, according to Stephens.

The sustainability of Jones’ penalty kill dominance and Couture’s 20.8 shooting percentage is an open question, but their importance to the team early in the season cannot be overstated. They’ve helped keep the Sharks afloat, and in a playoff spot with history on their side at the critical Thanksgiving mark. 

The Sharks need to not only let them have extra helpings during their holiday feast, but find a way to give them more help on the ice too.