Nearly a month ago, the San Jose Sharks were enjoying a comfortable lead over the Detroit Red Wings atop the Western Conference. The defending Stanley Cup champions, however, have since closed the gap.
The surging Red Wings have an opportunity grab the lead in the West as they continue their six-game road trip on Saturday night against a Sharks team looking to bounce back from its first regulation loss at HP Pavilion in nearly 11 months.
San Jose (32-6-5) topped the NHL and boasted a nine-point advantage over Detroit (31-7-6) in the West on Dec. 18, when the Red Wings rolled to a 6-0 victory at Joe Louis Arena.
While the Sharks have won gone 7-2-2 since that defeat, the Red Wings have gained ground by going 10-1-2 in that span. Detroit is now within one point of San Jose for the conference lead, and both teams are chasing East-leading Boston, which has an NHL-best 70 points.
"This is a big test for us," Sharks coach - and former Red Wings assistant - Todd McLellan told his team's official Web site Friday. "We'll find out where we are at. Their team has improved since the beginning of the year. In my opinion, they are the best team in the NHL."
McLellan's squad matches up against a Detroit team that has collected at least one point in a season-high 10 consecutive games (8-0-2).
On Thursday night, the Red Wings notched their second straight win and improved to 2-0-1 on their current road swing with a 4-0 victory at Los Angeles. Fourth-line players Kirk Maltby and Kris Draper each contributed a goal and an assist.
"It's all about chemistry," Maltby said. "(We) have good players and we've got a good nucleus of guys who have been here for a few years."
Detroit won for the fourth time in five away games (4-0-1) to improve its conference-best road record to 15-4-4. That road success will certainly be beneficial against San Jose, which already defeated the Red Wings 4-2 at HP Pavilion on Oct. 30.
The Sharks had a 31-game point streak dating to a Feb. 14 loss to Edmonton snapped on Thursday with a 3-2 defeat to the Calgary Flames. A deflection off the stick of San Jose defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic led to the decisive goal with 3:57 to play as the Sharks fell to 20-1-2 at HP Pavilion this season.
"You let a road team hang around when it's tied in the third period, and a lot of times something like that is going to happen," said Ryane Clowe, who recorded his 19th goal to tie the single-season high of 34 points he set in 2006-07.
Evgeni Nabokov finished with 28 saves, slipping to 17-1-1 with a 1.99 goals-against average in 19 home starts. But he has struggled against the Red Wings, giving up all six goals on 28 shots in last month's loss and 2-7-1 with a 4.30 GAA in his last 11 matchups against them.
Detroit backup Ty Conklin made 24 saves in that contest, and is 2-1-1 with a 1.72 GAA in his last four games versus the Sharks. He's recorded all five of the Red Wings' five shutouts thus far, stopping 23 shots Thursday to improve to 8-1-1 with a 1.59 GAA in his last 10 games.
Sharks center Patrick Marleau had a three-game multipoint streak end with Thursday's loss, but has 15 goals and 21 assists in 43 lifetime games versus Detroit. Marleau has scored 14 of his team-high 23 goals at home.