Sharks-Stars: What to watch for

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Sharks-Stars: What to watch for

SAN JOSE Simple math says that of the four remaining teams vying for three playoff spots, the San Jose Sharks are the longest shot to make it.

That would change with a regulation win over the Stars tonight at HP Pavilion. San Jose has just four games remaining in the regular season, which concludes with a visit to Dallas on Tuesday followed by a home-and-home with the Los Angeles Kings.

We want to win four straight, but we want to start with tonight, Joe Thornton said after a mandatory Sharks morning skate. Weve got to be shortsighted right now. Weve just got to win. It would be nice to go 4-0, but weve got to win tonight.

The Sharks (39-29-10, 88 points) are in ninth place in the West, just one point behind seventh place Dallas (42-31-5, 89 points). The Phoenix Coyotes are in eighth, also with 89 points, while the Kings lead the Pacific Division with 90. All teams have four games left.

Todd McLellan said: The players know where were at. They know that the time crunch is on them. They know whats left, and they know what the standings are.

Murray questionable: The Sharks lost Douglas Murray in the game in Anaheim on Wednesday, but the defenseman was on the ice this morning and could play against the Stars. He sat out Thursday's 2-0 loss in Phoenix in favor of Colin White.

Good, Murray replied, when asked how he felt. Well see what the coaches decide. When it comes to the lineup, youve always got to talk to them.

McLellan said: If he is able to play at 100 percent, well see him. If theres a risk of him not being able to finish, and us being put in a position to play five defensemen, we wont.

Murray attempted to play through the lower body injury in the first period against the Ducks, but it was easy to tell he had lost a step.

The position the Sharks are in also factors into his and the teams decision.

I probably felt I could play the other night in Phoenix, too, but its an important time right now. If youre somewhat affected by something and you cant make a play, one goal could be the difference. This might be a little bit different if it was Game 40.

Trends favor San Jose: The Sharks are 3-0-1 against Dallas this season, and will need to improve upon that record if they want to make it into the postseason.

For whatever reason, they bring out the best in us, Thornton said. Weve always played well in their building, and this year weve kind of had their number in our building. Hopefully, well continue that trend tonight.

The Sharks would be a perfect 4-0 against Dallas were it not for a late third period goal by Tomas Vincour and subsequent shootout loss in the most recent meeting at American Airlines Arena on March 8.

Still, seven out of eight points aint bad.

Playing with a lead, I think, is important against them. Weve been able to establish that in most of the game, said McLellan, whose club has scored first in all three of its wins. The special teams and penalty kill has pretty good, we havent given up many goals. Just getting timely goals from people when we need them. Pretty simple formula, and well need that again tonight.

The Sharks have outscored Dallas 10-4 in a pair of wins at HP Pavilion this season on Dec. 8 and Feb. 2.

Thornton leads all scorers in the season series with nine points (1g, 8a), while Patrick Marleau (2g, 3a) and Brent Burns (1g, 4a) have five points each. No player on Dallas has more than three points against the Sharks in the five games.

The Sharks should have the energy advantage, too, as Dallas lost 5-2 in Vancouver on Friday night before having to travel immediately after the game. They're just 1-10-2 in the second of back-to-backs as it is.

McLellan, of course, caught that game.

I thought they played very well early in the game and Canucks goalie Cory Schneider played very well keeping Vancouver in it. They look like theyre playing hard and theyre ready to compete for points, he said.

Roller-coaster ride continues: The Sharks bring a two-game losing streak into tonights game, having scored just one goal total in regulation losses in Anaheim and Phoenix. The Sharks looked to be gaining momentum before the trip, thanks to a three-game winning streak.

Its not the first time in the past few weeks theyve been unable to build on successive wins. The Sharks were 3-0-1 from March 12 March 17, but then suffered a pair of crushing losses to Anaheim and Los Angeles.

Theres been games where weve played well and the outcome hasnt been there for us, but more times than not when you give that effort youll get your chances and win those games, Patrick Marleau said. But, we have to find a way to win some games and get ourselves in a good spot.

Niemi vs. Lehtonen: Kari Lehtonen is expected to start in net for the Stars, and will look to improve on his career numbers vs. the Sharks. Hes 4-4-1 with a 3.58 goals-against average and .910 save percentage against San Jose, although he did record the shootout win over the Sharks on March 8 in what was his only appearance against them this season.

Lehtonen was pulled in the third period of the Stars loss in Vancouver after giving up four goals in 50 minutes.

Niemi will make his 18th straight start, and is 2-0-1 against Dallas this season. In 11 career appearances against the Stars, hes 6-2-3 with a 2.29 GAA and .922 SP.

He's 4-0-1 with a 1.77 goals-against average in his last five starts against Dallas.

Odds and ends: Joe Thornton was named the Sharks Player of the Month for March. He has at least a point in 21 of his last 31 games, with eight goals and 26 assists over that span. Phoenix hosts Anaheim and the Kings are in Minnesota in other games that will impact the Western Conference playoff race tonight. The Sharks will play their 17th game in the month of March. Michael Ryder has five points in the last four games and leads the Stars with 35 goals. Mike Ribeiro also has five points in his last four.

Sharks' Hertl taking contact, getting closer to return

Sharks' Hertl taking contact, getting closer to return

SAN JOSE – Sharks center/forward Tomas Hertl has taken another step in his recovery from a right knee sprain and subsequent surgery.

The 23-year-old is now doing contract drills, and called himself “almost day-to-day now” on Saturday.

“Last two days I’m working on battles, and I feel pretty good,” Hertl said. “Everything is going right. Hopefully coming closer and closer to playing. … Just [need to be] more comfortable with battling, because skating and everything, I feel like 100 percent.”

Hertl didn’t completely shoot down a suggestion that he could play before the All-Star break, which begins on Friday, but indicated it’s more likely to be sometime after that. The Sharks resume their schedule on Jan. 31 against Chicago after next weekend’s breather.

“We want [to take] a little bit of time, more battles, a little bit more workouts,” Hertl said. “But, I think I’m pretty close. We’ll see how it goes the next couple days.”

The timeline has been fluid with Hertl, who was originally expected to miss “weeks” rather than months, general manager Doug Wilson said shortly after the injury on Nov. 17. On Jan. 5, a source with knowledge of Hertl’s status told CSN he was unlikely to play before mid-February, but it now appears he’ll be back sooner than that.

“Looks great,” coach Pete DeBoer said of Hertl. “I don't know if that's a testament to our group or his progress, but he looked fantastic out there. He's getting very close. We're starting to talk about him on a daily basis, which is a good sign."

Hertl suffered his knee injury during a game with St. Louis on Nov. 17 after what looked like a fairly innocent collision with the Blues’ Jori Lehtera, and underwent what Wilson termed a “minor procedure” on Nov. 22 designed to prevent further knee injuries from occurring. It was at least the third known procedure that Hertl has undergone on his right knee.

In 17 games, Hertl has nine points (4g, 5a).

NHL Gameday: Sharks host plummeting Avalanche, Nieto

NHL Gameday: Sharks host plummeting Avalanche, Nieto

Programming note – Sharks-Avalanche coverage starts today at 7:00 on CSN California with Sharks Pregame Live

WHERE THEY STAND

Sharks: 28-16-2, 58 points, 2nd Pacific Division
Avalanche: 13-29-1, 27 points, 7th Central Division

PREGAME NEWS AND NOTES

***Not only are the Avalanche buried in last place in the Central Division, but they are just 2-14-0 in their last 16 games, including losses in their last four. Colorado has not won a game in regulation since Dec. 11 in Toronto, getting just a pair of overtime wins since then.

The Sharks visit Pepsi Center on Monday for the second of a back-to-back. It should be four points in the bank, but, predictably that's not the approach they’re taking.

“You don’t look at where they’re at in the standings,” Logan Couture said. “They’ve got some very good players, some top end skill up front. So, we know it’s going to be a tough game. They can create a lot off the rush, those guys. It’s going to be a challenge.”

The Sharks have won three straight, and are 5-2-0 in their last seven.

Pete DeBoer said: “For me, this more of a mindset game. We've been playing some very solid hockey the last few games against some tough opponents, and we have to bring that mindset in here again tonight."

***In goal, Martin Jones will return after it was Aaron Dell in net for Thursday’s win over Tampa Bay.

The Sharks netminder has struggled after taking a game off, going 1-5-0 with a 2.85 goals-against average and .890 save percentage in six games. Last season, he was just 5-10-1 with a 2.54 GAA and .899 SP the game after not starting.

Colorado will go with Spencer Martin, who will be making his NHL debut. A third round pick in 2013, Martin is 15-9-2 with a 2.62 GAA and .915 SP in 27 games for San Antonio (AHL).

“Obviously, we don't want to make it easy on him,” DeBoer said. “We want to fire pucks and get traffic and get lots of action around the net, but we're not spending a whole lot of time on that.”

***The Sharks will ice their same lineup from Thursday, other than the goaltender change. Timo Meier remains out with an upper body injury.

KEEP AN EYE ON...

Sharks: Ryan Carpenter. The 26-year-old center opened the scoring in the Sharks’ win over Tampa Bay on Thursday, and is making his case to stay on roster at least while Tomas Hertl remains out. Carpenter, who has two goals, eight shots, and a plus-three rating in five games this season, will play in his third straight game tonight after getting recalled early in the week. 

Avalanche: Matt Nieto. After he was pushed out of the Sharks’ lineup, Matt Nieto was waived by San Jose and promptly claimed by Colorado on Jan. 5. Wearing his familiar uniform number 83, Nieto scored his first goal with the Avalanche on Tuesday against Chicago, and has two points and eight shots on goal in five games with his new team.

PROBABLE LINES

Sharks
Patrick Marleau – Joe Thornton – Joe Pavelski
Joonas Donskoi – Logan Couture – Mikkel Boedker
Kevin Labanc – Chris Tierney – Joel Ward
Melker Karlsson – Ryan Carpenter – Tommy Wingels

Paul Martin – Brent Burns
Marc-Edouard Vlasic – Justin Braun
Brenden Dillon – David Schlemko

Martin Jones (starter)
Aaron Dell

Avalanche
Mikko Rantanen – Nathan Mackinnon – Rene Bourque
Gabriel Landeskog – Matt Duchene – Matt Nieto
Blake Comeau – Carl Soderberg – Jarome Iginla
Joe Colborne – John Mitchell – Mikhail Grigorekno

Fedor Tyutin – Tyson Barrie
Cody Goloubef – Nikita Zadorov
Francois Beauchemin – Eric Gelinas

Spencer Martin (starter)
Calvin Pickard

INJURIES

Sharks: Timo Meier (upper body), Micheal Haley (lower body), Dylan DeMelo (broken wrist) and Tomas Hertl (right knee sprain) are out.

Avalanche: Semyon Varlamov (groin) and Erik Johnson (broken fibula) are out.

QUOTEABLE

“It’s a bittersweet moment. Selfishly, you’re upset that you’re not going to be on the same team as him anymore and you’re not going to see him every day, but the other part of you is happy for him because he’s going to get an opportunity somewhere.”– Logan Couture, on Matt Nieto getting claimed by Avalanche earlier this month.