Sharks stressing strong start against Panthers

Sharks stressing strong start against Panthers
March 18, 2014, 12:45 pm
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Antti Niemi is sporting a 1.60 goals-against average and .946 save percentage over his past five games. (AP)

SAN JOSE – The San Jose Sharks have done plenty of winning lately, and will put their six-game streak on the line on Tuesday night at home against Florida. Still, on recent road trip, the three victories came in some uncharacteristic ways when compared to their earlier season success.

According to head coach Todd McLellan, the starts to their games haven’t been optimal.

“Our starts haven’t been the traditional start that we had earlier in the year. Our first periods we haven’t been the better team in the last three games on the road,” said the head coach.

“Our template for success has been jumping on teams right away and getting out of the gate. We haven’t been able to do that. We’ll ask that of the players again tonight.”

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Antti Niemi will return to the net against Roberto Luongo, playing at SAP Center for the first time since Vancouver traded him. Niemi was the sole reason the Sharks were able to close out their road trip with a 1-0 win on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.

Niemi enters on a personal five-game winning streak. He has a 1.60 goals-against average and .946 save percentage over that span. Against the Eastern Conference this season, he’s 16-5-2 with a 1.94 GAA and .928 SP and four shutouts.

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“We’re finding ways to win. You look at Sunday’s game in New York, we probably didn’t deserve to win, but we had one guy who stepped up and basically made us win with the way Nemo played,” Logan Couture said. “Different guys are stepping up. It shows our depth. It’s been fun. When you’re on winning streaks like this, it’s fun to come to the rink.”

Patrick Marleau said: “A lot of things have come together. Obviously the last game wasn’t our best, but Nemo pulled it off for us. He was unbelievable.”

The first few minutes of the first game back from a long road trip can be particularly difficult. The Sharks experienced that recently when they started the post-Olympic break portion of their schedule on the East Coast, and then struggled to get going against Carolina on March 4. The Hurricanes won that game in overtime, 3-2, San Jose’s most recent loss.

There are similarities to Tuesday night’s game don’t end there, in that the Sharks will have to focus on the task at hand rather than look ahead. A match against the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins followed the Hurricanes game; tonight’s game against a struggling opponent precedes a huge tilt with Anaheim on Thursday.

Patrick Marleau said: “We can’t take any game off. Tonight is going to be a tough opponent and obviously we know Anaheim is coming into town, but those points aren’t going to be as big unless we win this game.”

“We need these two points,” said Jason Demers. “This could be the two points that makes a difference at the end of the season, whether we get home ice advantage or not.”

Getting back to their good habits would also be preferable, as the Sharks allowed an average of 39 shots against per game in their last three road games, including 41 against the Rangers.

“It’s about winning games, but it’s also about the way we’re winning them,” Marleau said.