Sharks-Wild: What to watch for

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Sharks-Wild: What to watch for

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Kevin Kurz will be chatting with Sharks fans for the hour leading up to the game. Ask our Insider all the pointed questions at 3:30 p.m.! And remember, tonight's game airs on the NBC Sports Network (@NBCSN) at 4:30 p.m.

ST. PAUL Sharks defenseman Brent Burns rubbed some of his former hometown fans the wrong way earlier this season, when he said that he hoped the Wild would lose every game. Burns spent the first seven seasons of his NHL career playing in Minnesota.

Even though that comment was made tongue-in-cheek, Burns seems to be getting his wish. The Wild have dropped 11 of their last 12 games (1-8-3) heading into tonights game at the Xcel Energy Center against the visiting Sharks.

I took a lot of heat for that, but I think its just my competitiveness. Obviously, when they get rid of you, you dont want them to succeed without you, Burns said, before adding that he still has many friends on the Wild hed like to see do well.

The Sharks and Wild have met twice so far, both at HP Pavilion, splitting the first two games. Since they last met, though, a 2-1 Wild win on Dec. 6, Minnesota is just 3-8-3 while the surging Sharks are 9-2-3.

San Jose has points in 11 of its last 12 games overall (8-1-3), including four straight wins.

The league is so tight, every team goes through little swings. Obviously, we did at the start of the year, too, Burns said. Its so hard, every game is so tough and every team is so tight. Its tough to win.

"Right now were fining ways to do it, and Im sure theyre going to find their way, too. Hopefully its not against us, though.

Road journey begins: The Sharks will play 17 of their next 23 games on the road, beginning tonight. Although that stretch is broken up by the All-Star break at the end of this month, thats an intimidating number of games away from the home fans.

Obviously, theyd like to get off on the right foot tonight against Minnesota.

Managing your time, your body, all that stuff will come into play, trying to get your rest, Joe Pavelski said. Getting off to some early success definitely helps.

The Sharks are 9-4-2 on the road, and seem to be excited about the prospect of spending more time together during a grinding part of the season, according to Joe Thornton.

We have a tight bond. Everybody gets along good. I think with us, because we travel so much, it makes guys get along, he said. Were always on 10, 14-day road trips. I think our bond gets closer. We enjoy the road and going out to dinner together, so it makes it that much more fun.

We really enjoy playing at home and it helps with the crowd and stuff, but were going to try and bring our same game and guys are prepared and ready to play on the road, Pavelski said.

San Jose visits Winnipeg, Columbus and Chicago before briefly returning home for two games next week.

Our resiliency will be tested, not only on this trip but heading forward, McLellan said. I think weve already reached that challenging phase, and this is a new chapter within that.

Better when theyre tired? The Sharks recently completed a stretch of four games in six nights, winning all four, and seemed to get better with each passing game. That culminated on Saturday with a 5-2 win over the Washington Capitals in one of the more complete, 60-minute efforts the club has played all season.

Thats not a coincidence to McLellan, who said that the team is better at positional play when it may be a little tired. The trick is carrying that into tonights game with Minnesota after two days off between games.

The thing with our team is when we have a fatigue element or a simple approach to the game we tend to be better, he said. That was four games in six nights for us. We now have fresh legs underneath us, so the trick will be to manage the game the same way we did against Washington. Play situations the same way, be patient, but not on our heels.

Lineup unchanged: By the look of the optional morning skate, the Sharks lineup will remain unchanged from Saturdays win. That means Andrew Murray and Frazer McLaren are out, and Antti Niemi will start in goal.

Defensemen Colin White and Jim Vandermeer remain on injured reserve. White, who has missed the last five games with a lower body injury, is on the road trip, as is James Sheppard.

Torrey Mitchell will look to follow up on his strong performance against the Capitals, when he finished with an empty-net goal and an assist. Mitchell was a healthy scratch against Columbus in the Sharks previous game.

Niemi vs. Harding: The Sharks will go with Niemi in net, who will be opposed by the Wilds Josh Harding.

In five career starts against the Wild, including two this season, Niemi is 4-1 with a 1.61 goals-against average and .933 save percentage. Harding has struggled vs. San Jose, with an 0-1 record, 5.90 goals-against average and .864 save percentage in two games.
Odds and ends: Minnesota will be without Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who will be out indefinitely with a concussion, the team announced on Tuesday. Tonights game is a national broadcast on the NBC Sports Network (4:30 p.m. PST). The Wild are 2-2-2 in their last six home games. Patrick Marleau has a five-game point streak (2g, 5a). Jason Demers has a goal and three assists in his last three games. The Wild are 29th in the league in goals per game, with just 2.19. Only Los Angeles has fewer (2.09).

Analysis: Scoring winger a need for Sharks ahead of trade deadline

Analysis: Scoring winger a need for Sharks ahead of trade deadline

SAN JOSE – There are no glaring holes for the San Jose Sharks to fill ahead of next week's NHL trade deadline on March 1.

Still, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson is a notorious tire-kicker, and he’s surely working the phones these days to see if there’s anything out there that could help his hockey club, which has a comfortable five-point lead on the Pacific Division midway through its bye week.

“We’ll see, but we do feel really good about this group,” Wilson told CSN earlier this month. “We believe in our players and we believe in our guys on the Barracuda, because they’ve earned that.

“Having said that, our history speaks for itself. If there’s a way to help this hockey team or add something, we’ve always done it, and we’ll always explore it.”

So, what might the Sharks be exploring? There are two areas that make the most sense – a backup goaltender, and a scoring winger.

* * *

No question Aaron Dell has exceeded expectations in his first NHL season. He’s 7-3-1 with a 1.95 GAA and .934 SP in 12 games, and his .953 even-strength save percentage is tops in the league among goalies that have played at least 10 games.

Still, it’s unknown if Dell would be able to handle the day-to-day grind, if anything were to happen to Jones. Even in the minors last season when he earned the number one job with the Barracuda, he wasn’t playing three and four games a week due to the AHL’s Pacific Division having fewer games than the rest of the league. He’s also not been overly tested at the NHL level – of Dell’s 10 starts, only one has come against a team currently in playoff position, and the Calgary Flames are only barely in the second Wild Card spot.

There are some goalies thought to be trade bait as pending unrestricted free agents. They include Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop, Winnipeg’s Ondrej Pavalec, the Islanders’ Jaroslav Halak, or Philadelphia goalies Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth. All could likely be gotten for some combination of young players and/or draft picks.

But is it worth it for the Sharks to make a move for a player that might not even be needed in the postseason? According to one NHL analyst, the Sharks should just take their chances with the inexperienced North Dakota product.

“I probably wouldn’t put a whole lot of resources in [finding a backup goalie],” NBCSN analyst Keith Jones told CSN on the latest Sharks Insider Podcast. “If Martin Jones was injured you’d have a real problem, it would be tough to find a goalie to replace what he brings to the table. I know they tried James Reimer last year, and the book is out on him. … I’m not sure that that’s a major upgrade on Aaron Dell.”

That said, Keith Jones would like to see Martin Jones – who’s on pace to play 69.5 games – get more time off after the schedule resumes. That means increased playing time for Dell.

“I think you might just want to take a chance with your backup a little more frequently,” Jones said. “You may want to sacrifice a few games along the way. [Dell] gains some experience, and Jones gets some rest.”

The impression here is that the Sharks will probably stick with Dell. Sharks coach Pete DeBoer has been nothing short of glowing in his reviews of Dell lately, as well he should be. The goalie has earned his place on this team, and none of the other goalies that the Sharks could acquire would be obvious upgrades at this stage of the season.

* * *

A much stronger case can be made that the Sharks are in need of another scoring winger. 

While the offense has been more dangerous in recent weeks than it was over the first half of the season, it still doesn’t look as effective as it was last season going into the playoffs, when it finished fourth in the league. Yes, the power play has been relatively power-less, but there’s more to it than that.

Mikkel Boedker has been a disappointment after signing a four-year deal as a free agent, and was benched yet again on Sunday. Joonas Donskoi, still out with what looks like a shoulder injury, hasn’t taken that next step after his strong playoff run last season. Joel Ward is off his scoring pace from last year. Patrick Marleau has been outstanding, but remains streaky. Kevin Labanc and Timo Meier have done some nice things as rookies, but neither of them has “arrived” yet, to borrow a word commonly used by DeBoer. Nikolay Goldobin failed in his two-game tryout last week, too.

Finding a winger to play on the Joe Thornton-Joe Pavelski line should be a priority, as DeBoer has tried seven different wingers there this season without finding a permanent fit. 

Among the veterans that could be available are Dallas’ Patrick Sharp or Patrick Eaves, Arizona’s Shane Doan, Colorado’s Jarome Iginla, Detroit's Thomas Vanek, or even Vancouver’s Alex Burrows or Jannik Hansen, if the club is looking for a more agitating type.

Sharp is perhaps the most intriguing name on that list. Although he’s been hurt off and on this season and his numbers are down on a bad Dallas team, he’s a veteran scorer that has won three Stanley Cups as part of Chicago’s dynasty. He’s an obvious upgrade over the players that have rotated through the Thornton line.

Bringing in one of those aforementioned forwards would require some salary cap juggling (especially Sharp, who carries a $5.9 million cap hit) and perhaps a salary from the current roster going the other way, as the Sharks don’t have a whole lot of room right now. But it’s worth exploring, as a consistent offensive attack should be this team’s biggest worry right now with seven weeks until the postseason.

* * *

If the Sharks don’t make a move, DeBoer and company are still confident with the team in the dressing room. After all, most of those players were a part of the team’s run last season, when the Sharks were just two wins from capturing the Stanley Cup.

“For us, it’s not whether a piece comes in or whether we don’t bring any pieces in, I think we’re confident in our group,” DeBoer said. “It’s about us…playing to our identity for as long a stretch as is possible, because that’s what wins in the playoffs. Whether we don’t do anything or whether a piece comes in here, I don’t think that mindset changes.”

Justin Braun said: “Management is going to do what they’re going to do, but if they don’t do anything, we have confidence with everyone in here to get the job done.”

Despite loss, Sharks 'in a good spot' headed into bye week

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USATSI

Despite loss, Sharks 'in a good spot' headed into bye week

SAN JOSE – Despite what was technically their sixth loss in the last eight games, the Sharks seemed to put more stock in the point they gained in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Bruins on Sunday night at SAP Center, rather than the one they left on the table.

They have that luxury. 

The Sharks will enter their bye week five points ahead of Edmonton and Anaheim for first place in the Pacific Division, and figure they’re due for some time off after a short summer followed by a World Cup for some, and a brutal condensed NHL schedule for all.

“[We’ve] showed up and played hard,” Joe Pavelski said. “We’ve been in a lot of games. Games we’ve lost, we’ve battled. There hasn’t been any cheat in [our] game. Defensively, we’ve been strong. There’s a lot of good areas in our game that we like right now.”

Playing in the second of a back-to-back against a Bruins team had was coming off of its own bye week, the Sharks fell behind 1-0 on a first period goal by Ryan Spooner, but notched a Patrick Marleau equalizer in a second period in which they outshot the Bruins 16-9. An evenly played third period gave way to overtime, where Brad Marchand scored on a breakaway to give the Bruins their fourth straight win since changing head coaches.

The Sharks spoke before the weekend about finishing the final two games strong before the respite. They ended up gaining three of four points, including Saturday’s 4-1 win in Arizona, and were pleased with their effort against the Bruins as they capped off 10 games in 20 days since the All-Star break.

“It was an important push into this break,” Pete DeBoer said. “To go in up [five points] on the next closest team is a real testament to our group.”

Paul Martin said: “I thought we played pretty well, considering the back-to-back with some travel, and a team that was waiting for us.”

Perhaps the most encouraging performance came from Martin Jones, who was one of a number of Sharks players that was looking particularly fatigued lately. The goaltender entered the game with a 1-0-2 record, 4.46 goals-against average and .837 save percentage in his last four starts, including getting pulled after the first period in Boston just 10 days ago.

Jones was impressive, though, making a vital pad stop on the dangerous David Pastrnak in front of the net midway through the third period to keep it a 1-1 score.

“It was a good game. Two teams playing hard,” Jones said. “We can take a lot of positives from that one. It was a good hard game, just didn’t go our way tonight.”

Overtimes have been an issue lately, though. The Sharks have lost their last four games decided during the three-on-three, all coming within the last two weeks. As satisfied as they are with their cushion in the division, it could have been cushier.

Against the Bruins, Tuukka Rask denied Brent Burns on a two-on-one in overtime, and Marchand scored off of the ensuing faceoff, blowing the zone past Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic and corralling a long toss from Torey Krug before sliding it home.

“We get to overtime, shootouts – we expect to get that extra point,” Pavelski said. “We haven’t found it lately. We’ll just keep looking for it.”

DeBoer said: “The points are critical, they’re valuable. I don’t read a lot into [overtime decisions], we’ve won our share over the time I’ve been here. We had a chance to win tonight, too. … I concentrate on the effort, and I thought we got better as the game went on.”

Being focused and energized, as they have been most of the season to this point, shouldn’t be a problem when the season resumes next Saturday in Vancouver. The Sharks are in prime position to win their first division title since 2010-11, and a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final is a distinct possibility.

Losing six of eight won’t be nearly as acceptable coming out of the break as it apparently is going into it, but that’s not something to worry about now, even after another defeat. 

“There are some games you wish you could get back and get those points, but we’re still in a good spot,” Marleau said.