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).

Meier back with Sharks after working on his game in AHL

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Meier back with Sharks after working on his game in AHL

ST. PAUL – On paper, Timo Meier’s production after he was reassigned to the AHL Barracuda on Feb. 16 was down. The former first round pick had just six points (3g, 3a) in 14 games, and was scoreless in his last five, a far cry from what he was doing there earlier in the season and way off his numbers in juniors.

But at just 20 years old, Meier is still in the learning phase of his professional career. And as impressive as the Barracuda have been this season, they’re still playing in a developmental league, first and foremost. Meier got a chance to work on some of the aspects of his game he needed to work on.

“It was obviously hard going back,” said Meier, who has three goals and two assists in 28 games, before Tuesday’s game in Minnesota. “Sometimes you go back there and you try too much, but they told me to work on some things in my game, and I tried to do that.

“For me, going down there it was all about learning stuff on the ice, off the ice. … It’s my first year [in pro hockey], so as a young guy you want to learn and listen to the coaches, too. Just get better.”

Coach Pete DeBoer went into pretty good detail on what the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft needed to do with the Barracuda, and what he needs to show now that he’s back in the NHL.

“I think with a lot of big, talented young guys, they have to realize when they can make an extra play with the puck and when they have to chip it in,” DeBoer said. “They’re so used to dominating at the levels they’ve been at for so long, that [it’s] easier said than done. It’s habits you have to learn, and you don’t learn unless you’re doing them on a consistent basis.”

Meier’s shot selection, too, is something that needed some improvement, according to the coach. While the power winger might be generating plenty of shot attempts, no doubt pleasing the advanced stats crowd, there’s more to being an effective forward than running up numbers on the Excel spreadsheets.

“You don’t want to shoot [just] to shoot up here, or to just get shots on net. You’re not scoring on NHL goalies like you are on junior goalies from 30 or 40 feet out,” DeBoer said. “You’ve got to pick your spots. Sometimes you have to look for a better play than a shot.”

Meier said: “It’s a really tough league. As a young guy coming in, sometimes you’ve got to stay patient, too, try not [to do] too much. … Sometimes I tried [to do] a little too much.”

Meier has been in the Sharks’ lineup for each of the last two games. He started on the fourth line before getting bumped up to Tomas Hertl’s third line on Monday in Dallas, and returned to the fourth line with Chris Tierney and Micheal Haley for Tuesday’s tilt in Minnesota. He is scoreless with two shots on goal over those two games.

He could be a temporary fill in for Jannik Hansen, who remains out with an upper body injury but could potentially return before the end of the road trip this weekend. Or, perhaps Meier does enough to stick around for the stretch run and the playoffs. There would seem to be an opportunity to push someone else out of the lineup, as the Sharks’ depth scoring has been a season-long problem.

“It’s a great opportunity for me, getting that chance again later on in the season,” Meier said. “I want to put it all on the ice, leave it all out there and just make the best out of every shift I get. Play my game, play within my strengths, [do] the things that got me here, and I’m sure I’ll be successful like that.”

Three takeaways: Sharks' third line woes continue

Three takeaways: Sharks' third line woes continue

ST. PAUL – The losing streak endures, as the Sharks dropped their fourth straight, 3-2 in Minnesota on Tuesday night. A quick start from the home team, and an even quicker response after the Sharks tied it up late in the second keyed the Wild win. Let’s dig a little deeper, though, with our three takeaways…

1 – Wild come out flying

The Sharks’ general lack of panic after their latest loss, as we touched on in the recap, surely had something to do with the circumstances. Minnesota had an extra day of rest while the Sharks were on their second of a back-to-back, with travel. San Jose was also capping off a stretch of seven games in just 11 days (I believe we’ve mentioned here before just how monumentally foolish this year’s NHL schedule is). 

Frankly, the start was predictable. Minnesota was a ticked off team having lost five straight, and even though it had dropped is previous game in Winnipeg, 5-4, it erased a 4-0 deficit in that one only to lose it late. Surely that was a sign that the Wild were ready to break through in the win column.

Pete DeBoer said the Sharks “expected” an early push from Minnesota.

“They’ve been sitting here waiting, they’re desperate, they’re fresh, they’re healthy. We’re coming in on a back-to-back. We knew the first period would be tough. It wasn’t pretty, but we escaped only down 1-0 and I thought from that point on we started to fight back a little bit. Did some good things, just too little too late.”

The Sharks were competitive over the final two periods, finally getting their first goal in more than 138 minutes of game play to make it 1-1 (it was originally credited to David Schlemko, but has since been changed to Patrick Marleau). At that point, though, it was Minnesota’s turn to respond. It did, and that was the game.

2 – Third line woes

We touched on the Sharks’ lack of secondary scorers yesterday, and it was on full display against the Wild again Tuesday night as the third line of Tomas Hertl, Joonas Donskoi and Mikkel Boedker failed to do anything productive. Hertl had one decent chance in the first period from the slot that Devan Dubnyk turned away, but was later too soft and too slow on Minnesota’s third goal, as Zach Parise outhustled and outmuscled him before dishing to Charlie Coyle.

Donskoi finished with two shots, and didn’t even get one off on a second period breakaway. Boedker had no shots, and just one attempt.

Hertl now has no points in his last 10 games, and Donskoi hasn’t found the scoresheet, either, in nine games since returning from an upper body injury.

Prior to Tuesday night’s game, DeBoer indicated it’s taking some time for both players to get up to speed after being out. Hertl, of course, missed two months with his latest right knee injury.

“You come back, there’s a little bit of adrenaline, you’re on a high, and the reality hits that you missed some time and the league is moving at a really fast pace,” DeBoer said. “Just got to play through it and keep battling.”

Hertl said: “I for sure expect [more] of myself. … I try to stay with my game, try and make plays, be strong on the puck, make my linemates better. I need to just keep working all over [in the] D-zone, O-zone, and even power play.”

3 – Dealing without Vlasic

Marc-Edouard Vlasic was the second Sharks player in two nights to be sidelined by a flu bug, so Schlemko was bumped up to replace him paired with Justin Braun, while Dylan DeMelo and Brenden Dillon comprised the third pair.

Schlemko had a nice game, even if he is no longer getting credit for his third goal of the season. He finished with one assist, a plus-one rating, three shot attempts and three blocks.

“You can’t really replace a guy like [Vlasic],” he said. “He’s one of the best defensive D in the league. Just trying to keep it simple. We switched up the partners and spread out the ice time pretty well. Not the start we wanted, but after the first I thought we played pretty well. Played hard.”

DeBoer said: “We've got a little bit of a flu going through. Tierney was out yesterday with it, [Vlasic] got it today. Hopefully, that’s the end of it.”