SAN JOSE In been quite awhile since the San Jose Sharks found success against the Phoenix Coyotes.
The Sharks cruised to a 6-3 win over Phoenix Coyotes back on opening night, 6-3. Since then, Phoenix has taken the next three by a combined score of 11-3, including a 3-0 shutout two weeks ago at Jobing.com Arena.
Do the Sharks owe the Coyotes a beating?
We owe ourselves one. We havent played well against this team, Todd McLellan said on Saturday morning. Weve been a little bit lethargic, weve mismanaged the game, weve turned pucks over all of the things that lead into them having success. Theyre built around capitalizing on that. We owe ourselves a good game, we dont owe them a good game.
Tonight is a big test for us. Weve lost the last three games against them, so well be ready tonight, Marc-Edouard Vlasic said.
There are eight regular season games remaining for the 10th place Sharks (37-27-10, 84 points), who are two points behind the seventh place Coyotes (37-26-12, 86 points) with one game in hand.
Of the eight, seven are against Pacific Division opponents. San Jose, which visits Phoenix on March 29, is just 7-9-1 against its own division.
Coyotes hanging tough: Unlike the Sharks, the Coyotes werent supposed to be in playoff position this late in the regular season, especially after losing goalie Ilya Bryzgalov over the summer.
But here they are, a surprise to many once again, led by players like goaltender Mike Smith and veteran forward Ray Whitney.
Daniel Winnik spent a year with the Coyotes, so he has a good bit of perspective on coach Dave Tippetts philosophy.
Theyre extremely patient. They way Tippett coaches, they dont care if they ice the puck seven times in a row. Their whole bench isnt getting frustrated, said Winnik, who scored his first goal as a Shark on Thursday against Boston. They try and slow the game down and make it boring enough that you get disinterested and try plays that create turnovers, and thats how they score goals.
Smith (33-18-9, 2.36 GAA, .925 SP) presents a challenge more than just his steady play in the net. Hes known as one of the best puck-handlers in the NHL for a goalie, so the Sharks will try and prevent him from gaining possession.
You really have to be very cautious of your dumps and try to keep it away from him, Winnik said. If they do go to him, you know its an easy breakout for them. Its definitely like having a third defenseman back there. And obviously, hes been really good in the net for them, too.
McLellan said: You dont always get to enter the zone with possession, so when you do have to give it up, you better put it in an area where you can retrieve it and at least contest it. Mike is maybe the best in the NHL at handling pucks and setting up defensemen.
Smith has two shutouts against the Sharks this season the previous game on March 10, and Nov. 12 at HP Pavilion, both 3-0 finals. Antti Niemi (29-20-9, 2.46 GAA, .913 SP) will be in net for the Sharks, making his 14th straight start.
Doan out: The Coyotes will be missing forward and captain Shane Doan. Doan is serving the second of a three-game suspension for hitting Stars forward Jamie Benn during a game on March 20. Hes their third-leading scorer with 47 points (12g, 26a).
He is a big loss for them, mostly on the power play. They lose his one-timer on that side, and hes been a threat for him there, Winnik said. Hes really the heartbeat of the team and the organization because hes been there forever.
Thats not something the Sharks are focusing on, though.
Joe Pavelski said: Someones going to step up in his position. It doesnt make our approach any different. Hes a good player for them and obviously theyd like to have him, but were not too worried about that. Were trying to take care of ourselves.
Phoenix registered a key victory over another team battling for a playoff spot on Thursday, beating Colorado in regulation, 3-2.
Theyve already played without him and theyve had some success, McLellan said.
Paging Patrick Marleau: One player the Sharks would like to get going is Patrick Marleau. The forward has just one goal in his last 14 games, and said recently that the opportunities are there, but hes just not burying them.
McLellan addressed it this morning.
He is getting chances. I think theres been times in the past where his scoring has dried up a little bit and he hasnt been getting chances. Youre wondering what hes thinking or what hes doing. In this situation he has been getting some opportunities five-on-five and the power play, said the head coach.
Theres no doubt that hes due. When he gets the one, he always scores in bunches so thats a good sign for us, but lets get the one first.
Odds and ends: The Coyotes and Sharks are both 4-3-3 in their last 10 games. Phoenixs leading goal-scorer Radim Vrbata hasnt found the back of the net in 12 straight games. Ray Whitney leads the Coyotes with 70 points (23g, 47a), and has points in 23 of his last 27 games. Joe Thornton has 19 goals and 59 points in 55 career games versus the Coyotes.