Sharks-Coyotes: What to watch for

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Sharks-Coyotes: What to watch for

PHOENIX Goaltender Antti Niemi will return to the crease tonight in Phoenix and try for his third consecutive shutout when the Sharks visit the Coyotes for an early evening match at Jobing.com Arena.

Niemi took a slap shot in the wrong place during Wednesdays practice, so Thomas Greiss filled on for Thursdays 5-2 home win over Dallas. Niemi is coming off of a 1-0 shutout on Jan. 24 in Calgary in the game just before the All-Star break, and a 6-0 win over Columbus in the first game back from the break on Tuesday.

NEWS: Niemi returns, Demers still not skating

He said that hes not really thinking about his personal streak, but

Maybe it gives me a little extra spark, a little extra energy, he said on Saturday morning.

Niemi has good career numbers against the Coyotes, too. In eight games, hes 5-1-1 with a 2.11 goals-against average, .933 save percentage and one shutout.

He has yet to face them this season, though, as Greiss played on opening night in a 6-3 Sharks win, and took a 3-0 loss on Nov. 12. Both of those games were at HP Pavilion.

They have some of the same core guys and Ive seen the games, so I dont think it really matters, said Niemi of not facing Phoenix yet this year. Its a Western Conference, team so I know them pretty well.

Mike Smith, who was the goaltender for Phoenixs shutout win on Nov. 12, will oppose Niemi. In six career games against the Sharks, Smith is 2-3-0 with a 2.94 GAA and .923 SP.

Sharks confident: San Jose has two comfortable wins under its belt in the first two games after the All-Star break, has won three in a row overall, and is a pretty positive bunch headed into tonight.

Is this the most confident theyve been all season?

Yeah, and its a good time to have our dads here, too, Torrey Mitchell said, referring to most of the team members having their fathers along in what has become an annual event. We want to play hard for them. Were feeling good about ourselves right now, definitely. Were scoring some goals the last two games and playing well so it feels good right now, but we obviously cant get too confident.

We should feel good about our game, coach Todd McLellan said.

After struggling on the scoreboard going into the break, the Sharks have exploded for 11 goals in their last two games while maintaining a strong team defense.

I think the fact that we have scored some goals and buried teams, guys get confident, Ryane Clowe said. When that happens, too, guys get hungry to score. You see guys scoring and putting points up, and then everyone wants to try to contribute.
Coyotes getting desperate: Phoenix enters the game in danger of fading out of the playoff race. They are in 12th place in the Western Conference with 52 points, five behind the eighth place Minnesota Wild.

They have just two wins in their last nine games, and have not played since a 4-1 loss to Anaheim on Jan. 31 in which Smith was pulled in second period.

Its tough to make huge moves in the standings, especially with the one point reward for an overtime or shootout loss. A lot of teams, including our team, have to be desperate, McLellan said.

We want to play well and win as many games as possible, and if you dont have that sense of desperation in your game, you have no chance of winning in the second half it gets ramped up so much.

Despite Phoenixs struggles, the Sharks remember that 3-0 loss on Nov. 12 and wont take the Coyotes lightly.

Theyre a tough team to play and have always been a pretty tough team to play, especially the last couple of years, Mitchell said. Theyre tough to beat here, and were expecting that.

Power play surging: The Sharks power play is five for its last 12 over the past five games, and back in the NHLs top 10 after a pretty dismal two month stretch.

As we reported yesterday, one big reason is Joe Pavelski is back on the point and Logan Couture is on a loaded top unit that also features Dan Boyle, Joe Thornton Patrick Marleau and Pavelski. Theres more to it than that, though, according to Clowe.

I think more than anything, if you see the goals were scoring, its just shooting, he said. The pucks have taken a couple bounces and went in, and were running the plays we want to run, but were shooting.

The Sharks second power play unit consists of Clowe, Brent Burns, Justin Braun, Michal Handzus and Jamie McGinn.

Crowd sourcing: The Coyotes, plagued by relocation rumors for the past several years, are the worst draw in the NHL. Officially they are averaging 11,589 fans per game, but on many nights its much, much less.

Is it more difficult to play in front of a light crowd?

Its fun to play in front of a lot of people when youre on the road, but youve got to deal with it. Its the same for both teams, Mitchell said. Its almost like a road game for them too, sometimes. But, you get up for the game. Theres two points on the line, so everyones ready to go.

Odds and ends: Joe Thorntons 58 points against the Coyotes are his most against any team. Logan Couture has a five-game point streak, with five goals and three assists. Jason Demers (lower body) and Tommy Wingels (left shoulder) remain out for the Sharks. Phoenixs power play is just 2-for-26 in the last 11 games. Joe Pavelski has six goals in his last six games against Phoenix.

Marleau wants to return, but extension with Sharks could be tricky

Marleau wants to return, but extension with Sharks could be tricky

SAN JOSE – Just like his longtime teammate and fellow pending unrestricted free agent Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau said on Monday that he would like to return to the Sharks next season.

“Yeah, it would be nice. We’ll see if that’s an option,” Marleau said. “A lot of time here before this decision needs to be made.”

When asked if there have been any talks yet about an extension, Marleau said: “Not really, no.” Marleau, who was actively exploring his options to leave the Sharks early in the 2015-16 season, would be eligible to sign with another team on July 1.

The 37-year-old forward said he still feels like he has “at least five good years in me, or maybe more.”

“I still think I can contribute and play,” he said. “Until I think I can’t do that anymore, I’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

Marleau has spent his entire 19-year NHL career with the Sharks. He’s the franchise leader in just about every offensive statistical category, including games played (1,493) goals (508) and points (1,082). Marleau became just the 45th player in NHL history to reach 500 career goals on Feb. 2 in Vancouver. In 82 games this season, he posted 27 goals (third on the team) and 46 points (fifth).

He was asked what it would mean to spend his entire career in San Jose.

“There’s only a few people who have ever done that in their careers,” he said. “That’s something special.”

If Marleau wants a multi-year contract, which is likely, it could make it tricky for Doug Wilson to keep him, though. Players such as Martin Jones and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are due sizable raises in their next contracts, as both will enter the final year of their current bargain deals in 2017-18.

Wilson called it “a priority” to get Jones and Vlasic signed before training camp. He can begin talks on July 1, per NHL CBA rules.

“Certainly Martin Jones is everything we expected him to be, and he’s crucial,” Wilson said. “Marc-Edouard Vlasic [is] arguably one of the best defensemen in the league. You saw what he did against one of the top players in the league (Connor McDavid). Marc-Edouard is still one of the most underrated players in the league in the outside world. 

“Both of them are extremely important to get under contract, and we can start those discussions in the next little while.”

Both Jones and Vlasic indicated they would like to stay in San Jose past next season, too, and it’s conceivable that the combined price tag for those players will be somewhere in the $13-$15 million range. Both made just a combined $7.25 million in 2016-17 ($4.25 million for Vlasic, $3 million for Jones).

“Oh, absolutely,” Jones said, when asked if he could see himself with the Sharks long term. “I love it here. The guys are great. It’s a lot of fun coming to the rink every day. City has been great. The fans are awesome, and we have a great team. I’m excited.”

Vlasic said on March 14 that he would like to play his whole career with the Sharks, and confirmed that sentiment again on Monday, although the timing of an extension gets seemed of little importance to the 30-year-old.

“When it happens it will happen. It doesn’t matter if it’s July 1 or during the season,” he said.

The Sharks also have several pending restricted free agent forwards this summer in Chris Tierney, Marcus Sorensen, Melker Karlsson and Joonas Donskoi. It’s likely that they’d prefer to keep all of those players, and some multi-year contracts could be the result. Other players like Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc showed flashes of becoming solid NHL contributors, too.

Along with the salary cap (still yet to be revealed), Thornton’s future, and which player the Sharks lose in the upcoming expansion draft, there are plenty of factors both sides need to weigh before any decision on Marleau gets made.

“[Marleau and Thornton] have been cornerstones of this franchise for a long time, not only as players, but as people,” Wilson said. “There’s a lot of variables that go into that decision, and the first one is me sitting down and talking with both of them. We haven’t had a chance to do that, so we’ll get there.”

DeBoer: Joe Thornton played through torn knee ligaments in playoffs

DeBoer: Joe Thornton played through torn knee ligaments in playoffs

SAN JOSE – There was finally some clarification on Monday on what Joe Thornton was playing through, as the Sharks gathered one final time at their practice facility before the offseason.

And, it was significant, as the 37-year-old was dealing with a “torn MCL and ACL” in his left knee, according to coach Pete DeBoer.

“I don’t know if the injury report has come out yet, but I’ve never seen a player play with a torn MCL and ACL,” DeBoer said. “Basically, his knee is floating there. It was as courageous an effort, him doing what he did, as I’ve ever seen.”

Thornton was scheduled to have surgery on the knee later on Monday afternoon, according to general manager Doug Wilson. Prior to that, the longtime centerman met with the local media.

"I'm going to go see the doctors right after this and see what they say,” he said. “So, I'll know more about it today. I just know it was pretty sore playing."

Wilson said: “I’ve been in the business a long time. To see a player play with that type of injury tells you everything you need to know about him.”

As for a timeframe for Thornton to return, Wilson said: “Don’t know. We’ll know after [surgery].”

Thornton, an unrestricted free agent who has spent the last 12 seasons with the Sharks, said that he would like to return.

"Yeah, I want to come back. I think this is a Stanley Cup caliber team and I think I'm a little bit older and I realize how good this team is,” he said. “Of course I'd like to [return]. But, we'll have to see. I'm sure we'll be talking. But right now I haven't been a dad for a long time. I need to turn into a family man for a couple months."

Thornton said there have not been any talks yet about a contract extension.

“I just wanted to focus on hockey this year,” he said. “There's no hurry, but yeah, I want to be back. This team is a real talented team, and I love playing here."

Wilson said: “We have lots of time … We’ve got four-and-a-half months until we’re back at it.”

Thornton, who has been downplaying the injury since it occurred on April 2 – including when he said three days later that there was “no doubt” he would return for the playoff opener, and then missing the first two games of the first round series with Edmonton – struck the same tune on Monday when asked what he had to go through to suit up.

"Just the normal stuff that hockey players deal with,” he said. “It was just unfortunate, the time of the year, that it happened three games before the end of the season and the playoffs [and] you’ve got to deal with something like that. 

“Hockey players are a different breed. There's probably five or six guys that had to deal with different stuff. But it is what it is. I'll go get it checked out today, and go from there."

Although Thornton’s was the most severe, there were other Sharks playing through injury as is commonplace at the end of any NHL season. 

Tomas Hertl suffered a broken foot in the same game as Thornton on April 2 in Vancouver, while forward Patrick Marleau had a broken thumb. Logan Couture played through a mouth injury that he has already revealed will require extensive dental work this summer, while Joonas Donskoi separated his left shoulder twice over the second half of the regular season.