Sharks-Coyotes: What to watch for

Sharks-Coyotes: What to watch for
February 4, 2012, 7:10 pm
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PHOENIX Goaltender Antti Niemi will return to the crease tonight in Phoenix and try for his third consecutive shutout when the Sharks visit the Coyotes for an early evening match at Jobing.com Arena.

Niemi took a slap shot in the wrong place during Wednesdays practice, so Thomas Greiss filled on for Thursdays 5-2 home win over Dallas. Niemi is coming off of a 1-0 shutout on Jan. 24 in Calgary in the game just before the All-Star break, and a 6-0 win over Columbus in the first game back from the break on Tuesday.

NEWS: Niemi returns, Demers still not skating

He said that hes not really thinking about his personal streak, but

Maybe it gives me a little extra spark, a little extra energy, he said on Saturday morning.

Niemi has good career numbers against the Coyotes, too. In eight games, hes 5-1-1 with a 2.11 goals-against average, .933 save percentage and one shutout.

He has yet to face them this season, though, as Greiss played on opening night in a 6-3 Sharks win, and took a 3-0 loss on Nov. 12. Both of those games were at HP Pavilion.

They have some of the same core guys and Ive seen the games, so I dont think it really matters, said Niemi of not facing Phoenix yet this year. Its a Western Conference, team so I know them pretty well.

Mike Smith, who was the goaltender for Phoenixs shutout win on Nov. 12, will oppose Niemi. In six career games against the Sharks, Smith is 2-3-0 with a 2.94 GAA and .923 SP.

Sharks confident: San Jose has two comfortable wins under its belt in the first two games after the All-Star break, has won three in a row overall, and is a pretty positive bunch headed into tonight.

Is this the most confident theyve been all season?

Yeah, and its a good time to have our dads here, too, Torrey Mitchell said, referring to most of the team members having their fathers along in what has become an annual event. We want to play hard for them. Were feeling good about ourselves right now, definitely. Were scoring some goals the last two games and playing well so it feels good right now, but we obviously cant get too confident.

We should feel good about our game, coach Todd McLellan said.

After struggling on the scoreboard going into the break, the Sharks have exploded for 11 goals in their last two games while maintaining a strong team defense.

I think the fact that we have scored some goals and buried teams, guys get confident, Ryane Clowe said. When that happens, too, guys get hungry to score. You see guys scoring and putting points up, and then everyone wants to try to contribute.
Coyotes getting desperate: Phoenix enters the game in danger of fading out of the playoff race. They are in 12th place in the Western Conference with 52 points, five behind the eighth place Minnesota Wild.

They have just two wins in their last nine games, and have not played since a 4-1 loss to Anaheim on Jan. 31 in which Smith was pulled in second period.

Its tough to make huge moves in the standings, especially with the one point reward for an overtime or shootout loss. A lot of teams, including our team, have to be desperate, McLellan said.

We want to play well and win as many games as possible, and if you dont have that sense of desperation in your game, you have no chance of winning in the second half it gets ramped up so much.

Despite Phoenixs struggles, the Sharks remember that 3-0 loss on Nov. 12 and wont take the Coyotes lightly.

Theyre a tough team to play and have always been a pretty tough team to play, especially the last couple of years, Mitchell said. Theyre tough to beat here, and were expecting that.

Power play surging: The Sharks power play is five for its last 12 over the past five games, and back in the NHLs top 10 after a pretty dismal two month stretch.

As we reported yesterday, one big reason is Joe Pavelski is back on the point and Logan Couture is on a loaded top unit that also features Dan Boyle, Joe Thornton Patrick Marleau and Pavelski. Theres more to it than that, though, according to Clowe.

I think more than anything, if you see the goals were scoring, its just shooting, he said. The pucks have taken a couple bounces and went in, and were running the plays we want to run, but were shooting.

The Sharks second power play unit consists of Clowe, Brent Burns, Justin Braun, Michal Handzus and Jamie McGinn.

Crowd sourcing: The Coyotes, plagued by relocation rumors for the past several years, are the worst draw in the NHL. Officially they are averaging 11,589 fans per game, but on many nights its much, much less.

Is it more difficult to play in front of a light crowd?

Its fun to play in front of a lot of people when youre on the road, but youve got to deal with it. Its the same for both teams, Mitchell said. Its almost like a road game for them too, sometimes. But, you get up for the game. Theres two points on the line, so everyones ready to go.

Odds and ends: Joe Thorntons 58 points against the Coyotes are his most against any team. Logan Couture has a five-game point streak, with five goals and three assists. Jason Demers (lower body) and Tommy Wingels (left shoulder) remain out for the Sharks. Phoenixs power play is just 2-for-26 in the last 11 games. Joe Pavelski has six goals in his last six games against Phoenix.