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Sharks-Columbus: What to watch for

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Sharks-Columbus: What to watch for

PROGRAMMING NOTE: The Sharks and Blue Jackets drop the puck at 4:00 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet California, and be sure to stick around for Sharks Postgame Live following the game.

COLUMBUS The Sharks have lost four of the first five on a current nine-game road trip, but there doesnt seem to be a sense of panic in the locker room just yet.

A loss to the leagues last place team might change that. The Sharks (31-19-7) visit the Columbus Blue Jackets (17-35-7) tonight at Nationwide Arena, looking to complete a four-game season sweep of the club buried in 30th place in the NHL standings.

San Jose has just a two-point lead on Phoenix for first place in the Pacific Division, with two games in hand. After tonight, there are three games remaining on the season-long nine-game trip: Toronto, Nashville and Minnesota.

Weve left some points out there that we feel we should have had. Were not sitting where we want to be on this trip, and obviously these next few games are pretty important for us, Joe Pavelski said.

Todd McLellan gave the old coach-speak about taking things one game at a time, and not looking too far ahead.
RELATED: Vlasic to play in full cage

Nobody in there at all is talking at all about seeding or positioning or anything like that. At least not around me, and not that I know of. I know were not approaching it that way, McLellan said. Were talking about winning tonight.

Some good news for the Sharks is that defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic has declared himself fit to play after getting hit in the face with a puck on Sunday.

Nastiness continued? The Sharks and Blue Jackets faced off three times in January, so its not all that surprising that there seems to be a fair amount of animosity between the two teams.

First, there was Dane Byers elbow to the head of Andrew Desjardins here on Jan. 14 that resulted in a two-game suspension to the now minor league forward. Dan Boyle and Rick Nash have had a couple of encounters in the last two games, nearly dropping the gloves at one point. Finally, the teams combined for 92 penalty minutes in their previous matchup, including five fights, on Jan. 31 in a 6-0 Sharks win.

It got heated at the end (of the last game) but at least on our part, were more concerned about the win than anything else, Boyle said. This teams hopes for the playoff this year are pretty much done, so theyre in a different place than we are right now. Were fighting for our playoff lives and theyre playing a different type of game. I dont think the past has anything to do with it.

McLellan was asked if hell have to remind his club that now is not the time to settle personal vendettas.

We have to put the points in front of anything that we do, whether its evening scores or anything like that. But, thats the way we want to approach this game. We want to play hard, establish our ice, score more goals than they do and leave with two points, he said.

Checking the lineup: Based on line rushes at the full-team skate on Tuesday, Patrick Marleau will return to the top line with Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton; Tommy Wingels will skate with Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe; Dominic Moore is between Benn Ferriero and Jamie McGinn, while the fourth line looked to be Michal Handzus, Brad Winchester, and Andrew Desjardins.

If you dont feel like looking at a roster, that leaves Torrey Mitchell as the odd man out, which McLellan called a consideration after practice.

The head coach has mentioned before that having another forward around could be used as a motivating factor for other guys trying to stay in the lineup. He expanded on that philosophy now that Dominic Moore is here.

"There are some players every night, regardless of how well they play, they probably get the benefit of the doubt a lot of times, he said. Whether thats fair or not, thats sometimes how it works. Their cutback comes within games and on power plays and stuff like that.

Theres another group of players that have to work to stay in the lineup, and Moore gives us some real good depth on any one of the top three to four lines. I think as we find out more about him well have a better idea of how to use him in those roles and hell put pressure on others.

In the crease: Antti Niemi will make his second straight start tonight, looking to improve upon his effort from Sunday after a nightmarish game in Tampa Bay last Thursday. Steve Mason was the first goalie off of the ice for Columbus.

Mason allowed all six San Jose goals in the 6-0 loss to the Sharks on Jan. 31, while Niemi made 30 saves in that game in recording one of his four shutouts this season.

Thomas Greiss got the win in the first two games of the season series, both ending with a 2-1 score.
Blue Jackets talk Sharks: A couple of soundbites from Blue Jackets forward R.J. Umberger and head coach Todd Richards this morning, when asked about tonights game:

You want to go out and beat a good team. Thats what its about right now for us, Umberger said. Were trying to match ourselves up against the best teams and see what we can do. Weve challenged ourselves in here to win some games right now and go into next season with momentum, and thats what were trying to do.

Richards, a former Sharks assist coach, said: Theyre going to be ready to go. Theyve got great leaders in the room and its a big game for them as far as part of their road trip and where they are in the standings.

Richards also commented on the penalty minute-heavy game on Jan. 31, most of which came when the game was already in the bag for the Sharks, who were ahead by a comfortable margin.

The way the game was going in San Jose, they were all over us. It was a 6-0 game. I think that challenges your pride and I think thats the way the game started to unfold, he said. I expect the intensity only because this is a real big game for San Jose and were still fighting and clawing, so its a big game for us, too.
Odds and ends: The Blue Jackets will be without defenseman James Wisniewski, but are getting Nikita Nikitin back. Columbus has lost three of its last four. Patrick Marleau has three goals and an assist in his last four games. Douglas Murray remains out for the Sharks. Columbus is the leagues worst team on the penalty kill (75.8 percent). San Joses power play is third in the league (21.1 percent). Joe Thornton: Playing against Detroit, we can pull a lot of positives out of that game. We felt like we played well and we competed for three periods. Out of that, just grab some confidence and settle down. We realize how tight we are in the Pacific and weve got to get some points.

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.