NASHVILLE As poorly as the Sharks road trip started, the club still has a chance to finish with a .500 record with back-to-back games in Nashville and Minnesota this weekend, beginning tonight at Bridgestone Arena.
It wont be easy. The Predators are among the top teams in the Western Conference, and have not lost in regulation at home since Jan. 5, going 8-0-2 over that span. Their recipe for success remains the same a strong blue line corps, speed up front, and a world-class goaltender in Pekka Rinne.
San Jose, 2-4-1 on its nine-game trek, will try to build off of a 2-1 win in Toronto on Thursday night, ending a season-long four-game losing streak.
We need to start putting together good games back-to-back, Logan Couture said. Were getting down to 23 games left in the year, so were pushing for a playoff spot and we need to be playing our best to make the playoffs.
Joe Thornton said: There are still four points out there to be had, so weve still got to focus in on winning some games. Its been a tough trip, but it can be an average trip if we win these two games.
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Positives from Toronto: The improvements from the Sharks win in Toronto, compared with the 6-3 loss in Columbus the previous game, were numerous. First and foremost, the team was a great deal better in its own zone and got a much-needed strong performance from goaltender Antti Niemi.
McLellan rattled off a few more.
The power play got us a goal. We came out on the winning side of a one-goal game instead of the losing side. Kept a team to under three, which is important to our team, said the coach, before mentioning he got solid play from all four of his lines.
The Sharks were not shorthanded even once against the Maple Leafs, after the coach stressed disciplined play following the Columbus game in which the team committed numerous avoidable infractions resulting in Blue Jackets power play goals.
When were playing well, were disciplined and we dont take many penalties, McLellan said. I look at the team were playing tonight, theyre a very low-penalized team. They do a lot of work with their legs, and with their positioning, and we have to be that type of team tonight.
The Predators and Sharks are among the top power play units in the league. Nashville is second in the NHL with a 21.6 percent rate, while San Jose is just behind in third at 21.5 percent. The Sharks are 14-for-46 on the power play in their last 15 games (37.0 percent), but the Predators have not allowed a power play goal in their last five games.
Secondary scoring needed: The Sharks top scorers have been outstanding lately in terms of putting points on the board. In the last six games, Couture has eight points (4g, 4a), while Thornton (1g, 5a), Joe Pavelski (2g, 4a) and Patrick Marleau (5g, 1a) have six apiece.
Playing at home, the Predators will try and get Shea Weber and Ryan Suter out against the Sharks top line of Thornton-Marleau-Pavelski as much as possible, so a goal or two from the bottom two lines would be huge for San Jose.
Those two are tough to score on, and are big plus players for them, Couture said. For our team to be successful, you need some secondary scoring. Weve had that for the majority for the year, we just need to continue it tonight.
Weve got Pav and Patty and Coutch that are doing a lot of scoring for our team, and after that we need some of the grinders to step up, McLellan said. We need them to play solid defensively, but every now and then we need them to chip in. Its no secret when you go back and look at most of our wins, theyve found a way to contribute at some point.
Niemi vs. Rinne: Antti Niemi will try and win back-to-back starts for the first time since Jan. 24 and 31 (the games immediately preceding and following the All-Star break), when he mans the crease for the Sharks tonight.
In seven career games against Nashville, Niemi is 4-2-1 with a 2.39 goals-against average and .911 save percentage.
Nashville will go with Pekka Rinne, who will start for the 15th time in the last 16 games. Rinne has allowed two goals of fewer in five straight games, and is 4-2-3 with a 2.47 GAA and .931 SP against the Sharks in 10 career games.
Odds and ends: Predators forward Patric Hornqvist will return tonight after a five-game absence due to an upper body injury. ... The Sharks and Predators split two early season meetings this season, with each team winning on the others home ice. In the last 16 games between these teams, 13 have been decided by one goal. Nashville is playing its third game of a five-game homestand, and is 1-0-1 so far. Dominic Moore (lower body) and Douglas Murray (fractured Adams apple) remain out for the Sharks, and wont play tomorrow in Minnesota, either. Todd McLellan expects Moore to play probably over the next week. Nashville is 15-2-2 in its last 19 home games. McLellan on the Sharks nearing the end of their road trip: Youre always concerned as a road trip winds down that guys are looking forward to getting home, but we havent banked enough points at all on this trip to do that.