WILD (24-16-3) at SHARKS (23-13-7)
TV: NHLN-US, FS-N, FS-WI, CSN-CA
Last 10: Minnesota 4-5-1; San Jose 7-2-1
Season series: Rubber match of three; each team has won at home.
Big story: The Minnesota Wild and San Jose Sharks are neck-and-neck in the Western Conference standings with aspirations for better. Each is within theoretical striking distance of their division leader, and either could fall out of the Stanley Cup Playoff picture just as easily. The Wild may have the bigger challenge because the Sharks have been virtually unbeatable at HP Pavilion, where they haven't lost in regulation since Feb. 5, a 10-0-4 stretch, their longest point streak since a record 31-game run from March 3, 2008-Jan. 13, 2009.
Wild: It would be Minnesota's first playoff berth in four years, so pardon the Wild faithful if they're looking behind their team in the standings as well as ahead. The Wild had a successful run through Alberta to open their three-game trip, scoring a total of nine goals against the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, compared to eight during their previous 1-5-1 slide.
"We went through a definite lull where we weren't playing the way we should, but as of late we are starting to find our game again," said forward Kyle Brodziak, who ended an 11-game goal-scoring drought with two in Edmonton on Tuesday.
Sharks: One reason San Jose can be confident down the stretch is goalie Antti Niemi, who has been in nets for all but two of the Sharks' home games this season and has a 1.76 goals-against average in the Shark Tank. He's tied for the NHL lead in wins (22) with Thursday opponent Niklas Backstrom and has had his name put out there as a Vezina Trophy candidate. Niemi is second to Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne in games (41-39) and has almost singlehandedly kept the Sharks in contention through an up-and-down season.
"He's been a real good workhorse for us," coach Todd McLellan said. "There's been guys in the past who played 80 of 82 games in the League. So it's not uncommon for goaltenders to play a lot. We're only halfway through what would normally be a regular season. So he looks like he's got a lot of gas in the tank and is excited about playing."
Who's hot: Backstrom logged his first shutout of the season against the Sharks on March 23. … Wild forwards Zach Parise and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, and defenseman Ryan Suter each have a three-game point streak.
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