Sharks-Blues: What to watch for

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Sharks-Blues: What to watch for

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Get prepared for the Sharks and Blues with Sharks Pregame Live, airing at 7 p.m. The puck drops at 7:30 and stick around for Sharks Postgame Live immediately following the final horn -- all on Comcast SportsNet California.

SAN JOSE The St. Louis Blues will try for a season sweep of the Sharks when the teams meet for the fourth and final time tonight at HP Pavilion.

San Jose is coming off of a pair of 1-0 games, beating the Flyers on Tuesday but losing to Buffalo on Thursday. Goals will likely be at a premium vs. the Blues, too, as St. Louis allows just 1.91 goals-per-game, leading the league. The Blues were also shut out on Thursday, 2-0 in Vancouver.

The Sharks are eighth in GAA at 2.49, improving drastically in the last two games from their horrible road trip in which they allowed 35 goals over nine games.

They dont give up a lot of goals or a lot of chances. Well have to make ourselves work for our chances tonight, thats for sure, Ryane Clowe said.

Assistant coach Jay Woodcroft, who, with Matt Shaw, may have to fill in again for an injured Todd McLellan tonight, said: They play a heavy, mans type of game. Theyre going to make you earn everything, and they dont give you anything for free.

The Sharks have been shut out in their last two games against the Blues, both in St. Louis, 1-0 on Dec. 10 and 3-0 on Feb. 12 in the first game of the road trip.

The Sharks will almost certainly be getting a boost to their lineup. Logan Couture, who leads the Sharks with 27 goals, is set to return from an apparent knee injury suffered last Sunday in Minnesota. The 22-year-old missed his first two games of the season, but was back on the ice for Saturdays morning skate.

Theyre a tough team to play, said Couture of St. Louis. They come hard on the forecheck. Great defensive team, havent given up many goals all year. To beat them you have to play one of the best games weve played all year. Hopefully, we can step up tonight.

Defenseman Douglas Murray may also return. Murray, who has missed the last eight games with a fractured Adams apple, said my guess is Ill be playing pretty soon, when asked if hes ready.

RELATED: Couture set to return, Murray possible
Special teams play: Of the four goals the Sharks surrendered in their last two losses to the Blues, three of them came while they were down two men.

Conversely, the Sharks are a combined 0-for-10 on the power play. Its a facet of their game that will play a huge role against the stingy Blues.

All the games have come down to burying your scoring chances when theyre available. We think we can do a better job in the special teams area, Woodcroft said. Weve given up three five-on-three goals against them, so were going to have to check smart and stay out of the box.

The Sharks power play had been red hot from late-January through the recently completed road tip. In the last two games, though, it is a combined 0-for-3 and failed to score in consecutive games for the first time since Jan. 17-19.

San Jose is still fourth in the league with a 21.0 percent success rate.

Niemi vs. Halak: Antti Niemi has returned to form in the last two games, allowing just one goal in the last two starts after he was as bad as anyone on the nine-game road trip.

In eight career games against St. Louis, Niemi is 4-4-0 with a 2.53 goals-against average and .919 save percentage. In his last 17 starts, Niemi is 6-9-1 with 2.77 GAA and .902 SP. Hes allowed four-plus goals six times, but also has three shutouts.

For the Blues, Jaroslav Halak gets the call. He made 25 saves in a shutout performance against the Sharks in St. Louis on Feb. 12. In six career appearances against the Sharks, hes 3-2-0 with a 2.55 goals-against average and .924 save percentage.

Halak and teammate Brian Elliott are tied for third in the league with six shutouts apiece.

Hitch hockey: The Blues are 34-11-7 under Ken Hitchcock since the head coach took over 52 games ago. They trail Detroit by just two points for the lead in the Central Division, and are challenging for the top seed in the Western Conference.

Former Sharks forward Scott Nichol was asked how the Blues have been able to achieve such success after missing the playoffs last year.

I think we have big forwards that protect the puck real well, Nichol said. We can skate, and we have a couple offensive defensemen on our team that can move the puck real well, same as these guys. Its a really similar team. I think in the Western Conference, you have to be like that.

For the scuffling Sharks, tonight is an opportunity to remind themselves they can play with the big boys in the their conference.

Theyve been in the hottest team in the league since Hitch took over there, Clowe said. We need a game like that tonight to get us back on track. Just a sound game against a real good team. Its going to be a great test and we all know that. Weve got to pass that test.

If we can create some chances, well prove to ourselves that were a dominant team, too."

Odds and ends: St. Louis had its four-game winning streak snapped on Thursday. Brian Elliott has lost three straight, but has given up just seven goals in that span. The Sharks have just 15 goals in their last eight games (2-6-0). Antti Niemi has stopped 44 of 45 shots in the last two games. The Blues still are missing Alexander Steen (concussion), Matt D'Agostini (concussion), Kris Russell (concussion), and Jamie Langenbrunner (broken foot).

Future with Sharks still uncertain for Thornton, Marleau

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Future with Sharks still uncertain for Thornton, Marleau

More than four weeks have passed since the Sharks were dispatched by the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau appear no closer to signing contract extensions than when the season ended. 

Sharks general manager Doug Wilson faces some of the toughest decisions of his 14-year tenure as the head of the hockey department in the coming weeks, beginning with the two best players in franchise history.

And, no, there are no back room handshake deals here between the Sharks and either of Thornton or Marleau, allowing the Sharks to protect extra players in the upcoming expansion draft. The two veterans are still pending unrestricted free agents in the truest sense, and it’s no certainty that either will return to San Jose.

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Re-signing Thornton would seem to be more of a priority than re-signing Marleau, as centermen are more valuable than wingers. Thornton’s line, with Joe Pavelski and whoever the left wing happened to be, was still drawing the opposition’s top defense pair on many nights this season. Marleau was on that line at times, but was shuffled up and down throughout the year, spending about half the season on the third line.

Thornton apparently dodged disaster in terms of his left knee, as multiple sources have told NBC Sports California that the brunt of the damage was to his MCL, not his ACL. As long as he recovers fully, as expected, there’s reason to believe that Thornton could be better next season than he was in 2016-17. Last year’s Stanley Cup Final run, the World Cup, and the condensed schedule seemed to take their toll. Thornton, who typically downplays anything remotely negative, admitted more than once that this season in particular was a grind.

But perhaps just as important to the Sharks is what Thornton brings to the team emotionally. Pavelski may still be the captain – and an effective one, at that – but Thornton is still the heartbeat. Pete DeBoer made that clear after Game 2 of the first round against the Oilers, talking about what Thornton’s absence from the bench in those first two games meant to the team in terms of a bench presence.

“It’s old school accountability with Joe. It’s black and white,” DeBoer said. “He came up in an era and at a time and around people who you weren’t worried about hurting feelings. You said what needed to be said. That’s not always the case now in modern dressing rooms and with modern athletes. He’s a great resource for us, because there’s no greater pressure than peer pressure, especially from a Hall of Fame guy like that.”

So what might it take to retain Thornton and keep him from hitting the open market? 

It has been previously reported that Thornton wanted a three-year deal, and that remains the case. As for money, I would expect Thornton – who has taken hometown discounts in the past to stay in San Jose – to ask for at least $5 million per season, minimum. Our best guess here is that a Thornton-Sharks pre-July 1 agreement would probably look something like three years and somewhere between $15 – 17 million.

Whether the Sharks would be willing to make that kind of commitment to Thornton, who will be 38 in July, is unclear. If they are not, Thornton could listen to offers from other teams beginning on June 24, when the window opens for unrestricted free agents to speak with other teams.

Still, Thornton’s first choice is to remain in San Jose. The Sharks don’t have anyone that could replace him on or off the ice. There should be a deal to be made here, either sooner or later.

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Marleau’s future with the Sharks seems much hazier.

Unlike Thornton – who put up with public ridicule from Wilson and had his captaincy stripped – Marleau’s commitment to the organization hasn’t been quite as steadfast. Recall in 2015, of course, when Marleau’s preference for a brief stretch was to leave the Sharks. We reported here in November, 2015 that he was willing to accept a trade to three teams, while ESPN reported that Marleau’s agent was “quietly exploring the market” as late as January, 2016.

While those feelings seem to have passed over time, Marleau hasn’t been as emphatic as Thornton in his desire to return. When asked on April 24 if he would like to come back to the Sharks, Marleau said: “Yeah, it would be nice. We’ll see if that’s an option. A lot of time here before this decision needs to be made.”

At this point, though, Marleau may be asking for a bit much in his next deal. It’s believed that the franchise’s all-time leading scorer is, like Thornton, seeking a contract of at least three years.

That shouldn’t be overly surprising. When asked then if he wanted a multi-year deal on April 24, Marleau said: “Yeah, I think so. … I still feel like I have at least five good years in me, or maybe more.”

As we wrote here in early February, it may not make much sense for the Sharks to commit to Marleau for more than one year for a number of reasons, including potential long-term (and surely expensive) contract extensions for Martin Jones and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, something Wilson has made his top priority this offseason. 

If Marleau is seeking a lengthy commitment from San Jose, I don’t see how that works from a business perspective for San Jose, which has a number of prospects in the system at wing that could potentially fill the hole Marleau would leave. Timo Meier and Marcus Sorensen, in particular, could be ready to take the next step, and both would be much cheaper options (Meier has two years left on his entry level deal, while Sorensen is a pending restricted free agent that won’t require a huge raise).

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Further complicating matters is that Thornton has never been shy about wanting to win with Marleau by his side. The two famously announced their nearly identical three-year contract extensions on Jan. 24, 2014, and Thornton would still prefer to have Marleau return to San Jose with him.

“Hopefully, I can come back and Patty can come back,” Thornton said after the season ended. “I think this team is a very good team. I think this is a Stanley Cup caliber team. I really believe that."

Considering the salary cap for next season has not yet been revealed, and that Wilson can’t officially extend Jones or Vlasic until July 1, the general manager could be forced to wait a little while before finalizing anything with either Thornton or Marleau. That makes it all the more likely that the Thornton and Marleau camps will at least get an opportunity to hear from other clubs and consider other offers in late June.

In short, anything is still possible. And Wilson, Thornton and Marleau all have some difficult decisions on the horizon in a Sharks offseason that is unlike any other.

Barracuda power play leads the way in Game 2 win over Grand Rapids

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USATSI

Barracuda power play leads the way in Game 2 win over Grand Rapids

SAN JOSE – The Barracuda struck for three power play goals, including the game-winner in the second period by Joakim Ryan, in overcoming the Grand Rapids Griffins at SAP Center on Sunday night, 4-2.

San Jose’s victory evens the best-of-seven Western Conference Finals series at one game apiece.

Grand Rapids erased a 2-0 hole to tie the game in the middle frame, but less than a minute after Matt Ford knotted the score at 2-2 with a rocket from the circle on a Griffins power play, Ryan’s blast from just inside the blue line at 15:28 staked the Barracuda a lead they would keep for the rest of the night. 

The Barracuda finished 3-for-5 on the power play, after going 0-for-6 in a Game 1 loss on Saturday.

“The power play was a lot better tonight,” Ryan said. “We got set up more. We were able to get shots through from the point.”

One of those shots came early, when defenseman Julius Berman beat goalie Jared Coreau from long range just 3:35 into the game with San Jose on a man advantage. Later in the first, on another power play, Ryan Carpenter found open ice in the slot and redirected a Tim Heed pass at 10:44 for his team-leading eighth of the playoffs.

“Coming out, we wanted to get the first goal tonight,” Carpenter said. “For Bergman to get that first goal was huge for us.”

Ryan and Carpenter both attributed the power play success to winning faceoffs, which is something coach Roy Sommer wanted the club to focus on after it dropped the series opener, 3-1.

Winning faceoffs often is an indication of a team’s compete level, and that, too, was lacking for the Barracuda in an opener in which Sommer said his team played “dumb and slow.” 

Sunday was a much better performance.

“Whenever we’ve had a bad start, or a bad game, the next day these guys have responded,” said Sommer, whose club is the top seed in the Western Conference. “They’ve done it all year.”

The series now shifts to Grand Rapids for the next three games, with Game 3 going Wednesday. The primary affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings, the Griffins posted a 25-11-2 record in their own building in the regular season.

The Barracuda, though, should be a confident group on the road. Against San Diego in the second round, San Jose won all three games in Southern California after splitting the first two at home.

“It’s going to be a hell of a series,” Sommer said. “It’s probably going to go the duration, I imagine. Both teams are kind of feeling each other out and kind of have a pretty good idea of what the other guys are doing now.”

Ryan said: “Honestly, I think they are the team in the league that plays the most like us. I felt like last night they did a better job of taking the game to us. I thought we came out better tonight, and we battled harder, competed more, won more pucks. They’re a really good team, it’s going to be a battle the rest of the series, for sure. They’re not going to lay down.”

Barclay Goodrow’s empty netter with 1:06 left in regulation was the only goal in the third period.

The Barracuda outshot the Griffins, 40-35, including a 20-11 advantage in the first period.