NHL Inter-Conference Showdown Features Sharks and Rangers

MJ Kasprzak@BayAreaCheezhedSenior Writer IIMarch 12, 2011

Might the Sharks go to backup Anterro Niittymaki for the first time in 23 games?
Might the Sharks go to backup Anterro Niittymaki for the first time in 23 games?Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The San Jose Sharks, coming off an epic shootout loss to the Vancouver Canucks, play host to the New York Rangers in the final game of a season-long six-game homestand. It is the final game against a team in the Eastern Time Zone, much less Eastern Conference.

What's at stake for each team

With just four weeks to go, there is no doubt that New York has more on the line. The Rangers are playing to get into the playoffs right now, in the eighth spot in the East a mere half-game ahead of Carolina.

But the Sharks have continued to show urgency in the uber-competitive Western Conference. They know they can catch Detroit and be caught within a division that features five teams with top-eight point percentages in the West.

San Jose is just 1.5 games ahead of Dallas for the Pacific Division and are an equal distance from the second seed in the West.

How they are playing

The Sharks are the hottest team in the NHL, winning 18 of their last 23 games and getting points in 20. They are 3-1-1 so far in a homestand long enough to erase the effects of a February spent almost entirely on the road. Despite playing in the league's best division, they own the sixth-best record in hockey.

Over that same span, the Rangers are 9-14-1. This is the second game of a brief California road trip in which they lost the opener to the Anaheim Ducks, 5-2. They own the NHL's 19th-best record playing in its third-best division, and only the Flames gotten more wins from shootouts than the Rangers.

How they stack up statistically

The Sharks rank 14th in scoring (2.75 per game) and ninth in goals against (2.52). The Rangers rank 19th in scoring (2.72) and sixth in goals against (2.42), giving them a goal-differential eight better than San Jose in just one more game. San Jose has the best shot differential (plus-5.7) in the league while the Rangers rank 15th (plus-0.7).

San Jose also relies more on special teams, with the power play ranking third (22.1 percent) and penalty kill dropping to 22nd (80.6); the Rangers rank 18th on the power play (16.9) and 10th on the penalty kill (83.6). The Sharks are much better in the faceoff circle, ranking second at 53.4 percent while the Rangers are 28th at 47.1.

Injury Report

The Sharks penalty kill has struggled without Scott Nichol and Kent Huskins (injured reserve). Their power play has struggled without defenceman Dan Boyle (day-to-day). They recently got Anterro Niittymaki back and may choose this game to give Antti Niemi his first rest since January 13, especially after the extra time he put in Thursday.

The Rangers have lost solid backup goalie Martin Biron to injured reserve, so we can expect to see Henrik Lundqvist in net. Biron has joined the likes of enforcer Derek Boogaard, young talent Alex Frolov, and team leader Chris Drury on injured reserve.

What to watch for

Look out for hot Sharks Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley and Ryane Clowe on the score sheet. The hot Rangers are Ryan Callahan, Vinny Prospal and Artem Anisimov. 

All but one of San Jose's last 23 contests has been tight in the third period, and this should be no exception. But with the Sharks playing well and being at home against a traveling and struggling Rangers team, they should be able to win this one in regulation, 3-2.