SHARKS (23-11-5) at JETS (21-17-5)
TV: CSN-California (HD), TSN-JETS
LAST 10: San Jose 7-1-2; Winnipeg 5-4-1
Season Series: This is the only meeting of the season between San Jose and Winnipeg. The Jets took the last meeting between the two franchises on Oct. 16, 2010, when the then-Atlanta Thrashers doubled up the Sharks 4-2 at HP Pavilion.
Big Story: With San Jose getting hot and climbing the West standings and Winnipeg scrapping for a spot in the East's top eight, hockey fans and Broadway fans alike should be excited by the Sharks first visit to Winnipeg to rumble with the Jets since 1996. There is no truth to the rumor that composer Stephen Sondheim will be on hand for a ceremonial puck drop.
Sharks: San Jose lost to Minnesota 5-4 in a shootout Tuesday night, but prior to that the Sharks had gone 8-1-1 in their previous 10 games. The hot play has not only surged the team up the standings, but it has also left head coach Todd McLellan feeling pretty after clinching one of the head coaching spots at this season's All-Star Game by virtue of the Sharks' points percentage at the season's halfway point. As it stands now, San Jose, which hasn't lost consecutive games in regulation in more than a month, holds a seemingly comfortable lead in the Pacific Division. The Sharks are two points ahead of second place Los Angeles with a remarkable four games in hand.
In fact, the Sharks hold multiple games in hand on both Dallas and Phoenix, the only other teams it appears could conceivably catch San Jose in the Pacific. Tuesday's shootout loss to the Wild didn't help matters, but the Sharks still took a point out of the loss and the four goals against are unlikely to shake No. 1 goalie Antti Niemi. The Finnish netminder has just one regulation loss in his last 12 starts.
Jets: Something's coming to Winnipeg, and it just might be playoff hockey. Fifteen years after the NHL left Manitoba, the Jets are challenging for a postseason berth in their first season back in the League, knocking on the door of the top eight as they fight with the Capitals and Penguins for playoff position. In addition, Winnipeg trails first-place Florida by just a quintet of points, while having the same number of regulation and overtime wins, which could prove crucial down the stretch as the first tiebreaker.
Those postseason hopes were significantly damaged, however, by the Jets' recently-wrapped four-game road trip, in which they went a dismal 0-3-1 while being outscored 17-8. One cause for the slump might be the sudden struggles of left wing Evander Kane. The No. 4 pick in 2009 has been the top cat in town with 18 goals and 13 assists this season. A boy like that will be a huge boon to your team most of the season, but Kane has fallen off lately, notching just 2 points -- both assists -- in his last five games. Another cause for concern might be goalie Ondrej Pavelec, who has been feast or famine in net recently. Pavelec has won three of his last five starts, giving up just four total goals in those victories, but in his two losses he's been scored on 11 times.
Who's Hot: Blake Wheeler has wrested the Jets' team scoring lead away from Kane with 11 points in his last nine games. … Dan Boyle has always been dependable for offense on the blue line, but he's been a huge contributor lately, tallying 1 goal and 5 assists in the last two games.
Injury Report: Defenseman Colin White is still on injured reserve with a lower-body injury for the Sharks after being placed on IR late last month. Martin Havlat is likely to miss 2-4 more weeks after having surgery on his hamstring in December. … The Jets, meanwhile, may have to forget their current top pair defensemen and find another for Thursday. Dustin Byfuglien is still on IR with a knee injury while Zach Bogosian is questionable with a lower-body injury. Tanner Glass (facial laceration) and Alexander Burmistrov (upper body) are also questionable for Winnipeg.
Stat Pack: In a remarkable quirk of fate, San Jose's first visit to Winnipeg to face the reborn Jets comes exactly 20 years to the day of its first visit to Winnipeg against the original Jets, a 4-3 San Jose win in which current Sharks GM Doug Wilson scored a goal. In its history, San Jose went 4-6-1 with three ties in 14 games in Winnipeg with a win the last time they took on the Jets in Manitoba in 1996. The Sharks might fare better this time around if history is any indication. In 13 games against the Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise, San Jose is 9-1-1 with two ties.
Puck Drop: The MTS Centre has quickly gained a reputation as one of, if not the loudest building in the NHL, which hasn't made it easy for visitors. It's hard to blame the Jets fans for fostering the hostile environment -- they're only depraved on account of being deprived after 15 years without NHL hockey. As a result, the energy in the building has spurred the Jets to an impressive 14-6-1 record in Winnipeg. In the Eastern Conference, only the defending-champion Bruins have more wins at home. The Sharks have gone a formidable 9-4-3 on the road this season, so expect them to stay cool, but if the Winnipeg crowd gives them a rude welcome at their only Canadian stop on the current road trip, it isn't a stretch to think afterward that they might like to be in America.