Sharks-Maple Leafs: What to watch for

Sharks-Maple Leafs: What to watch for
February 23, 2012, 6:20 pm
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PROGRAMMING NOTE: The Sharks and Maple Leafs drop the puck at 4 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet California, preceded by Shark Byte at 3:30. You can catch catch Sharks Postgame Live following the game for all the news and analysis.

TORONTO -- If you just so happened to possess a crystal ball, and told the Sharks a dozen days ago that they would come home with a .500 record on their season-long nine-game road trip, they wouldnt have been very happy about it.

At this point, though, that would be considered a remarkable accomplishment. San Jose, 1-4-1 on the trip so far, will try and right the ship once again tonight against the Maple Leafs and put an end to its four-game losing streak.

Dan Boyle said the Sharks lacked desperation, an ever-so-popular term this time of year, in their ugly 6-3 defeat to the NHLs last place Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night.

But, I think were going to see it tonight, Boyle said. I think were aware of where were at, and we need to start putting some wins together and taking care of our own fate.

Where theyre at is now tied for first in the Pacific Division with the Phoenix Coyotes, and although the Sharks have two games in hand, could easily find themselves as the seventh seed in the Western Conference as early as the end of the night. The Coyotes face off in Calgary two hours after the Sharks drop the puck with the Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre.

You definitely dont want to limp going into the playoffs, Joe Thornton said. Weve got 24 games left, so weve got to play some good hockey.

Head coach Todd McLellan wants to make sure that the team looks at tonight as a fresh game, rather than carry the weight of its longest losing streak of the season.

When you carry baggage with you from one game to another, it becomes heavy on your shoulders. We talked about that a little bit yesterday. We erred, we werent ready, we didnt perform the way the way we wanted to against Columbus.

But, weve got to move on now, and play a little freer with a little less baggage on our shoulders. Well see what that does for us tonight.

Niemi vs. Reimer: A pair of struggling netminders will take the crease for their respective clubs as Antti Niemi opposes James Reimer.

Niemi was pulled after allowing three goals on 11 shots in the first period against the Blue Jackets, and has been wildly inconsistent for more than a month now, leading to some calls for more playing time for backup Thomas Greiss.

Greiss will likely play in one of the two games this weekend in Nashville and Minnesota, but tonight its up to Niemi to try and get his game going.

Its not just Niemis fault that the Sharks have given up 36 goals in their last nine games, of course (an average of 4.0 per game).

We dont blame anybody. We realize weve been giving up too many Grade-A chances, Thornton said. Both of our goaltenders have been playing good all year, so weve got to give them some support with coming down low, blocking shots and doing little things to not make those chances happen.

Boyle said: Defensively weve been strong all year, but unfortunately thats been our weakest point in the last couple weeks. Were giving up way too many goals. It starts on the back end with the goalie and ourselves, the d-men. Were a big strong team when we want to be, and weve got to work on it.

Reimer is also playing for the first time since getting pulled, when he allowed four goals on 18 shots in Vancouver on Feb. 18. The Maple Leafs' poor goaltending, including Jonas Gustavsson, has led to speculation that the club is looking to add a netminder before the trade deadeline.

Mitchell returning: Dominic Moores lower body injury means that Torrey Mitchell will likely return to the lineup after being a healthy scratch against the Blue Jackets. It was the second time Mitchell was pulled from the lineup this year as a coachs decision.

The first time, Mitchell responded well, with a goal and an assist on Jan. 7 against Washington.

I expect a complete repetition of what happened last time, McLellan said. It has to happen again. He has to be reminded. Hes much too effective of a player to not be contributing on a steady basis.

Sharks PP still surging: Although the Sharks are scuffling, the power play is still humming. It has scored at least a goal in nine of the last 11 games, going 14-for-39 over that span (35.9 percent).

On the season, that's bumped them up to third in the league at 21.2 percent. Matched up against the Leafs 29th ranked penalty kill (77.0 percent), and that may be something the Sharks could take advantage of on Thursday.

Its starting to get where were used to. Weve got a lot of movement, and just getting shots to the net and jamming away at some rebounds and the puck is going in for us, Marleau said of the man advantage.

Couture pacing the offense: Logan Couture has nine goals and 10 assists in his last 14 games. Hes showing no signs of slowing down, either, with a pair of goals in Columbus on Tuesday.

Hed rather be doing it while the team is playing well, though.

I guess Im in one of those grooves where the puck seems to find me and find the back of the net. Its nice scoring goals, but youd rather have the team win games and go goalless for five games if the team could win the next five, he said. Hopefully, we can get things on track tonight.

McLellan was also asked to comment on his budding star by the large contingent of Toronto media.

He tends to be on a line without the Thorntons and the Marleaus, so the focus still goes onto the big boys. Logan still doesnt always play against the top checking line so he has some freedom that way. When Thornton and Marleau are playing well, it frees up some space for him, said McLellan.

Incidentally, Couture, from nearby Guelph, Ontario, is looking forward to playing his first career game at the Air Canada Centre.

Im excited, and I was excited last night laying in bed thinking about it, he said. I watched a lot of Leaf games growing up, and I know a lot of Leaf fans. Hopefully we can beat em.

Odds and ends: Along with Dominic Moore, the Sharks are still without Douglas Murray, and will be for the rest of the road trip. Toronto is 1-5-1 in its last seven games. This is the only meeting of the season between these clubs. Joe Thornton has five goals and 10 assists in his last 11 games.