The Sharks are coming off a much-earned four days off, and host the Nashville Predators tonight in what is the fourth game in their five-game homestand and last game in the season series San Jose leads 2-1. They close out the homestand on Saturday against the Florida Panthers, then embark on a six-game road trip that will take them through March 23.
So far on this stand that immediately followed the Olympics, the Sharks are 2-1. In the opener, they played very poorly for most of the second period against New Jersey and dug themselves a hole they could not climb out of, losing 4-3.
However, they followed it with two gritty wins that necessitated some late offence. Montreal's Carey Price was virtually untouchable outside of a Patrick Marleau deflection of a Rob Blake shot on the penalty kill. But the Sharks, trailing 2-1 in the third, kept hammering away and finally found a rebound goal on the power play for Dany Heatley, then got a game winning slap shot from Manny Malhotra.
He came into the game having been only the second goalie to shut-out the Sharks (Ilya Bryzgalov was the other) by turning away 40 shots right before the Olympic break. Then he turned away the first 37 in the next match-up.
However, in the third period, he was beaten by a back-door power play feed from Joe Thornton to Dany Heatley to tie the game. Minutes later, Joe Pavelski came around from behind the net to roof home a wrist-shot as Price was getting coming across to protect that side.
Both of these games involved the Sharks having to solve a puzzle in net, adjust their gameplan, and increase their intensity--things that will be needed come April and May.
Tonight's opponent might well be the one they face when that kicks off, as the Sharks are all but guaranteed the first or second seed in the West, and the Predators the seventh or eighth. It is a matchup Nashville has to dread, but one that could offer a chance at redemption: San Jose beat Nashville in five first-round games in both 2006 and 2007.
The Sharks have more depth, better top-line talent, and a better goalie, especially given the rest Evgeni Nabokov has had this week. The thing they have to watch out for with the long layoff is rust, because there is perhaps no team in the league that plays harder or as consistently shift-to-shift as the Predators.
And Nashville is not without its talent, either, with very good goaltending, a mobile and sound passing defence, and key scorers and role-players. They rely on balance, with eight players with 30-plus points netting them 2.71 goals per game, 13th in the league. However, their special teams are lacking, with the 20th ranked power play and 27th ranked penalty kill.
The Sharks, meanwhile, are a puck possession team that is best in the league in faceoffs. Riding this strength has helped them rank top-four in scoring, defence (first), power play, and penalty kill.