SAN JOSE, CA - MARCH 1: Antti Niemi #31 of the San Jose Sharks makes a glove hand save against the Colorado Avalanche in the first period during an NHL hockey game at the HP Pavilion on March 1, 2011 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
When you've played the day before in a game where your best players were drained down to their plasma and are missing your second center and key defenseman, you probably wouldn't scour the menu to order a confrontation with the team playing the best hockey the next night. But such is the obstacle course the Hawks must navigate, and the NHL isn't big on sympathy.
As mentioned in our look in the week ahead, the Sharks have gone Sherman to the Sea on the rest of the league the past couple months, going for a 17-2-3 record. However, they have only won one of the past four, dropping two shootouts at home to Vancouver and the Rangers. If you're looking for hope, perhaps this is their blip? We won't know until tonight.
A lot of this can be pinned on Antti Niemi becoming a forcefield in net. He's put up a SV% of .930 and is only giving up 1.7 goals per game in this streak of dominance. However, what's really the key to all of it is that the defense in front of him has really cut down the amount of rubber that can introduce itself to Niemi, as he has only seen more than 30 shots in a game three times in February and March. The Sharks really commit to getting into lanes and closing down shooters, when they're not focused on having the puck themselves.
On the other end, the Sharks have taken a more socialist approach to their scoring. In years past, Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, and Patrick Marleau would pile in the goals with the rest of the squad contributing merely the appetizers and possibly a dessert. Now these three don't play together, and Logan Couture, Ryane Clowe, Devin Setoguchi, and others chip in more. But Couture and Pavelski are both mired in scoring slumps, they've combined for one goal the past month. Thornton is on pace for his lowest point-total in seven years.
But Patrick Marleau has a sneaky habit of scoring the big goals, and the Hawks have struggled to deal with Ryane Clowe and his superfluos "e" all season. The Sharks defense is pretty tough to breach these days, even moreso with the Hawks ailing. This will be a test of testicular fortitude, but you can't make or succeed in the playoffs without that.