The Sharks return to the friendly confines of HP Pavilion to kick off a three-game homestand, before hitting the road once more. While the Sharks put down the Stars to snap a three-game winless streak, they are still not out of the woods by any stretch.
With just under three weeks left in the season, it’s do-or-die time as the Sharks sit just seven points from the eighth seed. The Sharks trail Detroit by just four points in the race for the second seed in the Western Conference standings.
The Wild will be a desperate team because of their play on their recent four-game road swing. Their offense has been struggling mightily, and had been blanked on consecutive 4-0 losses in their first two games. It took until the second period of their third game against Vancouver, for the Wild to finally score.
They’ve lost six of their last eight games and are currently four points out of a playoff spot with 13 games to play.
The Sharks cannot take this Wild team lightly—they are still a very well-coached defensive club with solid goaltending.
Here are the top three keys to a Sharks victory and the successful start to their homestand.
Who to Watch
With injuries depleting the Wild’s offensive firepower, they fell back on their defense and goaltending which has always been a hallmark of their play.
Even with a full complement of players, the Wild aren’t exactly what you call an offensive juggernaut, ranking 25th overall with 178 goals.
Their goaltending has let them down of late, with 12 goals in the past three games. Niklas Backstrom figures to get the nod again Thursday night.
Backstrom has struggled big time recently, winning only one of his last seven starts. He was also not sharp early against Vancouver, allowing two soft goals.
The Sharks went back to Antti Niemi against the Dallas Stars, and he shone again through some poor defensive miscues, stupid penalties and late turnovers. Niemi has been nothing short of spectacular for the Sharks, but will need a rest after taking 26 consecutive starts.
With Antero Niittymaki back and ready for action, this matchup against the Wild would be a great chance for Niemi to rest. It’s early enough that Niemi will have more than ample time to return and get some momentum heading into the playoffs.
Niittymaki was very solid early on this season, before the coaching staff gave Niemi a chance to work out of his early season struggles.
He'll have to be on his toes if the Sharks can't take care of the irresponsible penalties that plagued them in Dallas.
Mikko Koivu and Cal Clutterbuck will play their second game after returning from injuries, and the Wild need them to buoy their sinking playoff hopes.
The Sharks will know where both players are on the ice at all times. With 36 combined goals, the duo make up a big chunk of offense.
Koivu’s return figures to bring linemates Antti Miettinen and Andrew Brunette back to life, after struggling as of late. Cal Clutterbuck has been clutch for the Wild and leads the league with 305 hits on the season.
The Sharks cannot take Minnesota lightly, regardless of their standing or statistical ranking, because they will be desperate for points. This Wild team outplayed the Vancouver Canucks for the most part after a 3-0 deficit in the first, out shooting Vancouver, 35-to-22.
Patrick Marleau continues his red-hot play, notching another pair of assists on consecutive nights. Joe Pavelski broke out and recorded his first ever four point game against Dallas. I won't go so far as to claim that Torrey Mitchell's hands have finally caught up to his feet, but he's had some sweet goals lately.
San Jose is getting contributions up and down its roster right now, and is doing it with a multitude of line combinations.
Inside the Numbers
San Jose is still ranked third in the NHL on the power play, converting 22.5 percent of their chances with the man advantage. The Wild are not very good with the man advantage, with a 19.4 percentage on the season. They have gone dry in their last three games.
Minnesota has won two of three from San Jose this season, with a 5-3 victory at Xcel on Dec. 29—the Sharks answered with a 4-3 win at HP on Jan. 22.
Niclas Wallin and Scott Nichol may be questionable for Thursday night’s matchup, and Cam Barker and Guillaume Latendresse are out for the Wild.
If Wallin cannot go for any length of time, the Sharks already thin blueline will have to respond yet again. Can you imagine if Vlasic had to leave the game after getting struck in the throat with the puck in Dallas?
Will Jason Demers play? Can Justin Braun rebound?
Leading the Kings and Coyotes currently by three points apiece, the Sharks have to win in order to stabilize their position in the West. Phoenix will be traveling to take on the Edmonton Oilers, and the Kings will be hosting St. Louis who face the Sharks after the Wild.
Do-or-die time, indeed.
Sweet Home Santa Clara
The looming three-game homestand is against “lesser” opponents; if one can call them that, considering the remaining 11 teams on San Jose's schedule. The Sharks will need to take care of business and build on the Dallas win, which was far from a complete game.
You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the Sharks’ lapses in their own zone and struggles on the breakout could cause problems in the playoffs. The untimely penalties won’t help much either, but the fact that the Sharks still managed to find a way to rally against Dallas and get the two points, is huge.
The Stars have had the Sharks' number just about all season—they are tops in the NHL with a 28-4-2 record when playing with the lead. As huge as the comeback win against the Stars was, it will matter little of the Sharks come-back and won’t protect home-ice against Minnesota or St. Louis.
The Dallas game wasn’t the dominant performance the score might have indicated, but the team is finding ways to put up points in the toughest situations. And that’s exactly what it needs for the remainder of the regular season and the march towards the Stanley Cup.
Bring on the Wild.