By: Jim Meinecke
In the final game of a four game western road trip, the Penguins look to make it three straight wins against the Sharks tonight. After a disappointing performance to start the road trip against the Avalanche, the Penguins won in back-to-back nights against the Ducks and Kings. Those games looked completely different, but the results were the same. The Penguins dominated play against the one of the league’s best in the Ducks, and hung on long enough against the Kings on Saturday night to win in overtime. The Pens will be going up against a team that is hungry for a win as the Sharks are currently sitting six points out of the last playoff spot in the West.
This will be the first of two meetings against the Sharks this season. The final game between the two clubs will be on March 29 in Pittsburgh. The Penguins have been coming on as of late going 6-3-1 in their last ten games, and six wins in their last seven games. Also, they have been very strong against the western conference this season going 14-5-2 thus far. Evgeni Malkin’s seven game point streak came to an end against the Kings, but he has been on fire as of late with 14 points (7 G, 7A) in his last eight games. Marc-Andre Fleury is also coming off of a 31 save shutout for his league leading ninth shutout this season. He will look for back-to-back shutouts for the third time this season as he did it on October 30 and November 1, and February 4 and 6. Patric Hornqvist will also look to build on his recent hot streak as he has seven goals in his last seven games. Beau Bennett looks to solidify his spot on the third line as he will play with Sutter and Winnik again tonight. Downie will play on the fourth line with Lapierre and Spaling, which means Craig Adams will be scratched for his second game in a row. Christian Ehrhoff looks like he will miss his fifth straight game.
The Sharks have had a disappointing season thus far. As I mentioned above, they are currently on the outside looking in for a playoff spot this season. For a team that has been a regular season juggernaut and have made the playoffs regularly, the Sharks are flirting with missing the playoffs for the first time since 2003. While they may have a lackluster record, they are still a very dangerous team. Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, and Logan Couture are near the top of the NHL in points. Pavelski, in particular, has 61 points with 32 goals and 29 assists. The biggest difference between this team and Sharks’ teams of recent memory is that they are giving up a lot more goals per game. They are currently 21st in the league with 2.7 goals against per game. The team has struggled to find consistent goaltending as Antti Niemi (.913 save%, 2.62 GAA) and Alex Stalock (.904 save %, and 2.66 GAA) have not put their team in situations to win a lot of games this season. While the Penguins will look to get their power play back on track against the Sharks’ 25th-ranked penalty kill unit, the Penguins will have to be equally worried about a Sharks power play that is 5th in the league and has been consistent throughout the season. The unit has also scored five goals in the last five games. The Sharks are 4-6-0 in their last ten, and they will no doubt come out hungry for points as they are seeing their season slipping away.
The Penguins will have to lean on Fleury early in this one as I expect the Sharks will come out flying in front of their home crowd. The Pens should look to pepper Niemi early and often with shots as he has struggled this season. Don’t be surprised if this game comes down to special teams. If the Penguins can find a way to draw a few penalties and get to the man advantage, they should encounter favorable situations to get back on the score sheet with the power play. The puck drops at 10 PM EST tonight and the game will be shown on NBC Sports and ROOT Sports.