SAN JOSE -- It will be a battle of the backup goaltenders Thursday night when the San Jose Sharks face Columbus at HP Pavilion.
San Jose's Thomas Greiss will make his first start since Dec. 3, ending Antti Niemi's streak of starts at 13. For the Blue Jackets, Curtis Sanford will be in goal for the first time since suffering injuries to his back and hip on Dec. 22 against Nashville.
Niemi started 17 of the past 18 games, while Greiss has watched and waited.
"It wasn't that bad," Greiss said of the long layoff. "We do a little extra stuff, skate a little more. It wasn't that bad. That's the role of the backup. Nemo has been playing really well so it was good for the team. I have to be ready when I have to be ready."
Sharks coach Todd McLellan said he expects Greiss to be up to speed when the puck drops.
"It's the job of any goaltender to be ready at any time, whether you're starting for the first time in a number of days or whether you've got to go in," McLellan said. "I watched the Russian goaltender in the junior tournament go in in a pressure situation with five minutes left. He was ready. That's the sign of a true pro. That happens in our league. You look around, the No. 1s play the majority of the games. The 2s have to be prepared, and they have to produce."
That's especially true on a team like San Jose, which has three veteran goaltenders - Niemi, Greiss and Antero Niittymaki, who has yet to play since rejoining the team Dec. 13 after recovering from offseason hip surgery.
Greiss enters the game with a 4-4 record, a 2.37 goals against average and a .918 save percentage.
Sanford said he's feeling healthy again, thanks to some anti-inflammatory medicine, and is "definitely anxious" to get back on the ice.
"I know I'm going in there against a strong team, but every team is strong," Sanford said. "It really doesn't matter who you're playing on any given night. Just a matter of preparing myself like I usually do and go out there and try to help the team win."
Sanford has appeared in only 16 games, to 23 for Steve Mason, but he has by far the best goaltending stats on the team. He is 5-6-3 with a 2.66 goals against average and a .908 save percentage. Mason is 5-16-2 with a 3.33 goals against average and .885 save percentage.
"I'd like them to be better," Sanford said of his numbers. "I think that's the goal, to try and keep improving every game. When you improve every game it's by improving in practice, too. I'm just trying to work hard in practice and keep a level head. I know this year's been tough for us, but now we're in 2012. We've got to turn the page on 2011 and find a way to rack up some wins."
The Blue Jackets are last in the NHL with just 25 points. Columbus will face a Sharks team that leads the Pacific Division with 45 points but is playing for the second straight night and with a goaltender who hasn't faced a real shot in more than a month.
"We're at a position in our season where we're so focused on ourselves and getting ourselves better, it doesn't matter who they throw at us," Jackets captain Rick Nash said. "We have to look at it that he might be a little rusty to the game speed. We've got to try and get in as many shots as we can. If he hasn't' started since Dec. 3, we have to try to use anything to our advantage because we definitely need all the help we can get."
The Blue Jackets will certainly be more rested than San Jose. They haven't played since Dec. 31, when they blew a 2-0 third-period lead and lost 4-2 at home to Washington.
"We have to take advantage of that first period," Columbus coach Scott Arniel said. "We can't allow them to have an easy game. They're a team that always starts strong in this building. If we can catch them a little bit maybe fatigued or a little bit slow out of the gate, then we have to take advantage of that. We can't make it an easy game by allowing them to be on the power play. We can't turn pucks over. We've got to play a straight-line game and get them skating real early."
McLellan said the Blue Jackets are playing much better recently than their record indicates and that his team can't afford a slow start after emotional road wins at Vancouver on Monday and at Anaheim on Wednesday.
"I think we've got our hands full," McLellan said. "They seem to come out of the gates fairly strong lately. With us playing three (games) in four (nights) and some travel, we have to make sure we're prepared when the puck is dropped and not wade our way into the game."
McLellan said "there's a good chance" that Wingels will be in the lineup against Columbus. He had a team-high 13 goals, along with eight assists, for Worcester. He opened the season with San Jose but had just one assist in three games before being sent down.
"He has played extremely well down there," McLellan said. "I've been told he's one of the best players in the American (Hockey) League, and that's exciting to know he can come up and be that guy we can count on for some big shifts, especially after three games in four nights."
If Wingels plays Thursday night, the question is who sits. Asked if former Blue Jacket Andrew Murray, a fourth-line wing, would be in the lineup, McLellan said that would be a game-time decision.
Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash told the Columbus Dispatch on Wednesday that he would be willing to waive the no-movement clause in his contract if that would help the organization.
"I would do what was best for the organization," Nash said Thursday, after the Blue Jackets' morning skate. "It's given me a lot and has been loyal to me. My no. 1 priority is to stay here.
"I think Columbus deserves a winner, and the organization and the ownership is great. It's been awesome. If they came to me and realized they wanted to shake things up, I wouldn't want to stay where I wasn't wanted. That hasn't happened yet. I don't expect it."
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