Sabres vs. Sharks: San Jose Aims for Pacific Division Lead Against Buffalo

MJ KasprzakSenior Writer IIMarch 1, 2012

Ryan Miller was disappointed the Sabres traded Paul Gaustad Monday
Ryan Miller was disappointed the Sabres traded Paul Gaustad MondayJeff Gross/Getty Images

The San Jose Sharks host the Buffalo Sabres Thursday night at HP Pavilion. They are two points behind the Phoenix Coyotes for the Pacific Division lead with a game in hand.

Phoenix hosts the Calgary Flames, who they beat in a shootout in Alberta six nights ago. The Flames have cooled off, dropping four of five despite earning points in three of those losses.

With the Coyotes on an 11-0-1 stretch, the Sharks should not expect much help closing the gap. But if the Flames can win the game, the Sharks can move past Phoenix in the standings—in point percentage if the game goes past regulation or in the official standings if it does not.

Even should the Flames lose, the Sharks would move up in the standings with a win. The Chicago Blackhawks are officially in front of San Jose by two points, even though the Sharks have three games in hand. While the point percentage is already good for sixth, a win moves the Sharks there officially.

The Sabres will be no easy task, however. The Sabres are still five points out of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. No team with as high of expectations as they had will give up on a playoff spot so easily, as evidenced by their last six games and especially their hard-fought win over the Anaheim Ducks Wednesday night.

The Sharks can hope that a tired team arrives at the Tank. They can also hope that Ryan Miller is either not in net or not himself after turning away 43 shots in the shutout in Orange County.

They can also hope that their own 1-0 shutout means they have put their defensive woes of the road trip (35 goals over nine games, with at least three in eight contests) behind them. With it, they hope the two penalty kills mean their 28th-ranked unit is regaining the form of the two months prior to the road trip (over 85 percent) over what it did on it (71.9 percent).

It will help that the Sabres have the 10th-worst power play in the league (16.2 percent) and only five teams score fewer than their 2.38 goals-scored average. The Sharks' 10th-ranked offence (2.79 GSA) and fourth-ranked PP (21.3) should have success, too; only 10 teams give up more than Buffalo's 2.79 GAA, and only nine have a worse PK (80.8).

The Sharks are also near the top of the league in five-on-five scoring (sixth with 1.17 goals scored per goal yielded) and faceoffs (second at 53.2). The Sabres are in the bottom half for both—18th (.96) and 19th (49.6) respectively. San Jose is second in the NHL with a plus-six average shot differential, while Buffalo is seventh worst at minus-2.4.

But the Sharks have had the favourable statistical comparison in most of their recent matchups. The bigger issue here is who is healthy, both on the injury report and in their play on the ice. The Sabres hold a clear edge in both categories.

The Sharks are still without Martin Havlat and Douglas Murray, and may be without both Dominic Moore and Logan Couture. The Sabres are without Jochen Hecht and may be without Cody McCormick.

Buffalo has won also three straight over San Jose, including at the Shark Tank last season. They have points in six straight games (4-0-2), while the Sharks are 2-5-1 over their last eight.

San Jose must avoid their slow starts (first period deficits in six of their last eight games) and force the Sabres to skate every inch of the ice by getting pucks deep. Only then can they bring out the fatigue of a traveling team coming off a tough game the night before.