WILD (8-3-3) at SHARKS (8-4-1)
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Last 10: Minnesota 6-2-2, San Jose 7-2-1.
Season Series: They open their four-game season series after splitting last season, the home team winning each game. That came on the heels of a Sharks sweep the season before. It will be the first time back in San Jose for two former Sharks, Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley, who along with their team carry a five-game winning streak into HP Pavilion.
Big Story: The Wild added Setoguchi and Heatley to provide some offensive punch, sending Brent Burns and Martin Havlat to San Jose in separate deals, but it's the goalies who have them on a tear, their best since a franchise-record nine-game winning streak March 8-24, 2007. They're on the second of a five-game road trip. The Sharks have won seven of nine themselves and are 8-0-1 versus the Wild in their last nine games in the Shark Tank.
Wild: If you're not going to score, it's best to allow as few goals as possible. While the Wild's 2.21 goals per game place them among the League's weakest offenses, their defense is second-stingiest only to Edmonton's at 1.79 goals allowed per contest. And like Nikolai Khabibulin's dominance in the Oilers' net, Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom have kept the goal opening shut tight.
Harding is supposed to be Backstrom's backup, but not many backups rattle off four wins in a row allowing three goals between them, earning him NHL First Star of the Week. Backstrom responded to the challenge with a 41-save performance and 3-0 shutout of the Flames on Tuesday. This, of course, leaves coach Mike Yeo with an embarrassment of riches in terms of who to start Thursday.
"I don't know that we could really make a bad decision as a coaching staff ... as far as who we're going to put in net," Yeo said. "When you get goaltending like that you have a chance to win every hockey game."
Sharks: Looks like it's going to be like this all year. After meeting in the playoffs last season and upgrading their rosters over the summer, the two strongest teams in the Pacific Division clashed on Monday. When the buzzer sounded, it was the Sharks outmuscling and outscoring the Kings, 4-2 at HP Pavilion. After the Kings outshot them 14-7 in the first period, coach Todd McLellan had a few tweaks in mind.
"We talked a little bit about a few adjustments," he told the San Jose Mercury News. "We needed a five-man forecheck. We were involved in our forecheck with only two or three guys and our D weren't up. We wanted to be a little more aggressive, at least make them earn the right to come out of their zone."
The end result was a banner night for Dan Boyle, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, each of whom scored and combined for four assists, while Antti Niemi made 29 saves for his first home win of the season.
Who's Hot: Logan Couture scored his sixth goal in eight games against the Kings. Joe Pavelski, the Sharks' points leader with 17, had his eight multi-point game of the young season with two assists. Heatley leads the Wild with 10 points in 14 games, but is a plus-4 on the ice. Guillaume Latendresse has three goals in his last three games and leads the team with a plus-7, while only Cal Clutterbuck, Colton Gillies and Darroll Powe are on the negative side of the ledger, the first two at minus-1, the latter a minus-2. Martin Havlat, acquired in trade by the Sharks for Heatley, has 8 points in nine games.
Injury Report: Clutterbuck (upper body) missed the Calgary game and is day-to-day. Wild defenseman Clayton Stoner (broken finger) is ready to play, but has had trouble breaking into successful blue-line pairings that Yeo is loath to change. Defenseman Mike Lundin (back) practiced with the team for the first time on Monday and accompanied the Wild on their current road trip. Defenseman Greg Zanon (groin) has missed seven games and remains out indefinitely. Outside of goalie Antero Niittymaki's long-term convalescence from September surgery, the Sharks have a clean bill of health.
Stat Pack: As well as both teams are playing, history favors the Sharks heavily. Backstrom is 1-5-1 with a 3.39 goals-against average in San Jose, and Harding was roughed up in his only career appearance versus the Sharks, a 5-2 road loss Jan. 30, 2010. Niemi is 3-0-0 with a 1.67 GAA and one shutout against the Wild, who have not allowed a power-play goal in 21 opportunities over the five-game streak. The Wild's 2.21 goals per game match Columbus' scoring rate, but the Blue Jackets are 2-11-1. Of course, the Jackets allow more than twice as many goals at 3.71 per game, most in the League.
Puck Drop: "I've been watching how they've been doing, hoping that they would lose every game. You have to be competitive to reach this level and I'm a pretty intense guy. And when a team doesn't want you, you sure don't want them to go 82-0. I have a lot of friends there and you want them to score six goals and lose." -- Sharks defenseman Brent Burns to the San Jose Mercury News about facing the Minnesota Wild