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Pens impressed, but Sharks say they can play better

Thursday, 12.05.2013 / 1:36 PM
Wes Crosby  - NHL.com Correspondent

PITTSBURGH -- The San Jose Sharks are the best team in the NHL. At least according to Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma.

The Penguins and Sharks will meet Thursday in a potential Stanley Cup Final preview at Consol Energy Center. Bylsma thinks his team will be tested against the best the Western Conference has to offer.

"I've probably seen them play a little more than Chicago," Bylsma said. "With all due respect to Chicago, I think [the Sharks are] maybe the best team in League right now in a lot of different areas. Their special teams are in the middle of the pack number-wise but their 21 even-strength goals from the [Joe] Thornton line, 20 from [Patrick] Marleau's line and Joe Pavelski is their third-line center.

"The way they come at you, the way they play, they're certainly, I think, the best team in the League right now."

Despite Bylsma's praises, Sharks coach Todd McLellan said he doesn't think his team has played up to its ability.

After going winless in five straight games, four ending in overtime or a shootout, at the end of October and beginning of November, San Jose has won nine of its past 10 games and is riding a six-game winning streak. During that stretch the Sharks have held their opponents to two goals or fewer seven times and have scored four goals in four of their past six games.

"I thought we got a little bit comfortable as a team, got off to a good start [to the season] and maybe put it on cruise control when we shouldn't have," McLellan said. "That five-game winless streak where we still got points probably scared us back into playing the right way.

"We haven't been as consistent over 60 minutes as we'd like to be. We've kind of been an on-and-off team."

The Penguins enter Thursday atop the Eastern Conference by one point against the Boston Bruins, while the Sharks trail the Chicago Blackhawks by one point for the West lead. After losing four of five games in the middle of November and briefly surrendering its Metropolitan Division lead to the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh has won seven of nine and regained a nine-point division lead.

Pittsburgh leads the Eastern Conference with 39 points, but would be tied with the St. Louis Blues for fifth in the Western Conference. The game Thursday could serve as a barometer for how well the Penguins could compete against one of the West's best teams.

"We expect a tough game and want to make sure we're at our best," Penguins center Sidney Crosby said. "Any time you get a challenge like that I think you want to be at your best."

Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin, who is one point behind Crosby in the NHL scoring race with 37 points, will miss the game with a lower-body injury after leaving midway through Pittsburgh's morning skate. Sharks captain Joe Thornton said he would rather have Malkin in the Penguins' lineup to gauge how well San Jose matches up against Pittsburgh at close to full strength, but doesn't expect any less of a test with Malkin out.

"You always want to play against their best lineup and you still want to win the game, but you want to see how you match up against the best teams in the East," Thornton said. "So it's disappointing he got hurt but we're still in here to get the two points.

"They're still an unbelievable team and I think at home they've been very, very good."

Pittsburgh has gone 17-4-3 against Western Conference teams since the 2011-12 season. Those 17 wins are the most out-of-conference wins among Eastern Conference teams. That trend has continued this season, with the Penguins winning four of six games against Western teams.

San Jose has been even more successful against Eastern teams this season, going 8-1-1 so far.

Sharks forward Tyler Kennedy, who will play in his 400th NHL game against the team he spent his first six seasons with, said he thinks the game can be viewed as a measuring stick for San Jose even without Malkin skating.

"I think we have a lot more similarities than differences," Kennedy said. "We've both got great leaders on both teams. They're both great teams and it should be a great game. Obviously they're losing a world-class player [but] no matter who goes in that spot they're going to be a good player and I think they have a good team no matter who they have in there."

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