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Division rivals Coyotes, Sharks battle for playoffs

by Matthew Mankiewich
COYOTES (37-26-12) at SHARKS (37-27-10)

TV: FS-Arizona (HD), CSN-California (HD)

Last 10:
Phoenix 4-3-3; San Jose 4-3-3

Season Series:
The Coyotes have taken three of four so far, but they'll be rounding out their season schedule with this game and another in Phoenix next Thursday. Mike Smith has been in nets for all four games and has shut the Sharks out twice in three straight wins, his only slip-up a 6-3 Sharks feast in the teams' season opener on Oct. 8.

Big Story:
It's unfamiliar territory for the Sharks, who have historically spent the final week of the regular season resting players and maybe making a run at a higher playoff seed. Going into Friday's action, however, they find themselves a point out of the eighth seed and two behind the seventh-place Coyotes. The 'Yotes have picked up the pace a bit from their early-March funk and continue to keep their sights on the Pacific Division title.

Team Scope:

Nothing is guaranteed in the Western Conference race these days. The Coyotes started Thursday in ninth place. After grinding out a 3-2 win over the Avalanche that night, they were third in the West with the Pacific lead. Then the Kings beat the Blues in a shootout and it was right back down to seventh.

Now they have seven games left to firm up their playoff grip. They'll be playing this one and the Blues on Sunday without captain Shane Doan, who is serving out a three-game suspension. Leading goal scorer Radim Vrbata hasn't lit the lamp in 12 games. They're still in the chase largely because 39-year-old Ray Whitney, who made his NHL debut with the Sharks in their inaugural 1991-92 season, has had a year for the ages. His 70 points are good for 12th in the NHL, he's broken the 40-assist mark for the seventh season in a row and is on a six-game points streak, which bodes well for reaching the 1,000 career point mark very soon. He currently has 996.

"We've been chasing (from behind) in so many games, and every time we get the puck in his hands we have a chance to get back in it," coach Dave Tippett told "He's scoring huge goals, setting up huge goals. He's been great the whole year, but as the urgency of the games have elevated he's stepped up his game to meet that."

Catching the Bruins a little flatfooted after traveling from the East Coast was a good thing, but the Sharks are most proud of Thursday's 2-1 home win because for the first time in a long time, they felt they played a complete game. Even when Zdeno Chara got the B's on the board with 4:15 left, they kept their cool, allowing only one more shot the rest of the way.

"Because we were doing some things right," coach Todd McLellan said to the San Jose Mercury News. "I think panic sets in when you're cheating the game a little bit and maybe doing some things wrong. But we were doing a lot of things right. They scored one, we settled back in and did what we were supposed to do."

It was a contrast to how the team felt going in. Losses to the Ducks and Kings left the team doubting itself, and McLellan spoke to the players about dealing with the tension.

"When you're in stressful situations, it can slow you down, it can make you lethargic, it can make you tired if you allow it to," he said. "But if you play free, and put it aside and accept the challenge, then you're a little bit faster and a little bit fresher. I thought we had that tonight. We didn't have that in the last two games."

Who's hot:
Whitney also has points in 23 of his last 27 games (9g, 22a). His career-high plus-25 rating is fourth in the League, but first among the NHL's top 20 scorers. Raffi Torres has 6 goals in his last 12 games and the 15 he has on the season are one more than his total with Vancouver last year. … Daniel Winnik's goal Thursday was his first as a Shark and ended a 44-game drought. Goalie Antti Niemi has gone 3-1-0 with a 2.20 goals-against average in his last four home games.

Injury report:
Coyotes forward Taylor Pyatt (upper body) is still day-to-day after missing two games, while defenseman Adrian Aucoin (lower body) has missed four. … Sharks forward TJ Galiardi (upper body) is still day-to-day after sitting out four games.

Stat Pack:
Niemi was broadsided with seven goals in the two road games he started against the Coyotes, but he has yet to face them at home this season, where he is 2-0-0 with a 2.00 GAA since joining the Sharks. … Whitney played his first six seasons with the Sharks, but has 12 goals and 27 points in 31 career games against them. … Joe Thornton has 19 goals and 59 points in 55 career games versus the Coyotes.

Puck Drop:
Naturally teams need to be as focused as possible for games like these, but McLellan believes sometimes it has as much to do with the time the team spends off the ice as on.

"We're around the group all the time," he said in the Mercury News. "The fans are great and they're entitled to an opinion. But when you're around the players all the time, you have a feel for where they're at and you have to go with that. We're not different than all the teams around the league and rest is real important.

"A lot of the practice is done via video right now. The high-minute guys, there's way more value in rest right now than grinding it out in practice. They need the energy for the games."

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