Sharks' trip winds down at Nashville
SHARKS (30-21-6) at PREDATORS (30-19-7)
: CSN-CA (HD),FS-TN (HD)
: San Jose 7-2-1; Nashville 5-4-1.
: Nashville has taken each of its two meetings with San Jose so far this season, including their most recent matchup, a 2-1 win for the Predators at HP Pavilion on Jan. 8.
: While both Nashville and San Jose are in the West's top eight, each team is toeing a fine line in a conference that is still shockingly tight. With any brief slump potentially providing the difference between a shot at Lord Stanley and a spring of improving gold handicaps, and with the Predators and Sharks currently separated by just one point in the standings, the winner of Tuesday's matchup could reap enormous dividends come April.
: After a winding trip to southern California, across to the northeast U.S. and down into Florida, the Sharks have finally reached the denouement of their season-high seven-game road trip, and given how sour the trek has suddenly gotten, a return home is probably welcomed. San Jose was among the hottest teams in the League four days ago, winning nine of ten and not suffering a regulation loss in nearly a month, but after letting a late lead slip away in New Jersey Friday night and repeating the feat Sunday in Florida, the Sharks have dropped two straight as they head to Nashville for their road trip finale.
The good news is that the hot streak has pushed them back into the West's top eight, and the Sharks sit just two points out of first in the extremely tight Pacific Division. Antti Niemi
, who recently had an impressive 8-0-1 stretch between the pipes that included back-to-back shutouts of Washington and Boston, is a major reason why. After 12 consecutive starts, however, San Jose's losses could be a sign Niemi is starting to tire as he holds the fort for the injured Antero Niittymaki
. Niemi's 36 starts this season are just three shy of his career high of 39, which he totalled last season while splitting time with Cristobal Huet in Chicago.
: In a fortuitous stroke of luck, Mike Fisher and Carrie Underwood likely spent their first Valentine's Day as a married couple together. For a couple that features a professional hockey player and a country music singer that could be an unusual occurence, but they can thank the Nashville Predators' recent acquisition of Fisher for making it happen. Nashville, Underwood's adopted hometown, is expecting Fisher to bring some added production and grit to its offense, which he delivered with an assist in his first game as a Pred Saturday, and given Nashville's lack of consistency recently, the team could certainly use it.
The Predators have won three of their last five games, and have been in the thick of the West's top eight most of the season, but their recent middling play has been riddled with bizarre outcomes. For an example look no further than an impressive 4-1 win over Central-leading Detroit on Feb. 9, which came on the heels of a 4-0 loss at home to Edmonton, which sports the League's worst record. Fortunately for the Preds, Tuesday will be the second of four straight games at Bridgestone Arena. After downing Colorado in the homestand opener Saturday, the comforts of Music City should provide a nice opportunity for Nashville to get its ducks in a row.
: With most of its roster running cold, San Jose has still managed to get solid production from Joe Pavelski
, who has five points in his last three games ... Martin Erat's three-point game against the Avs Saturday wasn't the only contribution he's made for Nashville of late, tallying eight points in his last seven games.
: The Predators are thinner at both ends of the ice with forward Marek Svatos and defenseman Francis Bouillon both having not played since mid-January. Nashville may also be without Marcel Goc, who is questionable with an upper-body injury. Antero Niittymaki
is questionable with a lower-body injury for the Sharks, who should have an otherwise healthy lineup.
: The Sharks' recent winning streak might be more a result of Niemi's hot hand than anything else. San Jose's offense is averaging just 2.33 goals per game during its current road trip. The Sharks have scored two goals or fewer four times during the seven-game swing.
: The Sharks and Predators may not be in the same division, but given the nature of the West playoff race and the talent-laden rosters both teams have, the prospect of missing the postseason should heighten the intensity for either side. The lack of a traditional rivalry is unlikely to keep this from being a tightly-contested matchup, and the ramifications will be far reaching as the postseason picture begins to clear up in the season's final weeks.