Sharks-Blues: What to watch for

Sharks-Blues: What to watch for
March 3, 2012, 9:10 pm
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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).