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Elite goalies highlight Sharks-Sabres matchup

by Matthew Mankiewich
SABRES (30-12-7) at SHARKS (34-10-8)

Last 10 --
Buffalo 6-1-3; San Jose 7-2-1

Season series --
Not your typical interconference one-and-done, as these two will meet again before the Olympic break on Feb. 13. Their previous meeting was last Feb. 13 at HSBC Arena, in the aftermath of a tragic plane crash near Buffalo Niagara International Airport in which 50 people perished.

Having decided to play despite an offer from the NHL to postpone the game, the Sabres provided the fans with a welcome diversion: a wild, high-scoring match that saw the home team jump out to a big lead only to have the Sharks come back with a four-goal surge. Jason Pominville tied it with four seconds left in regulation and the Sabres pulled out a 6-5 shootout win.

Big story --
Anything can happen between a pair of top-notch teams like these, but few would expect much to get past either Ryan Miller or Evgeni Nabokov these days. The star goalies for the United States and Russia in the Olympics are in top form, especially Nabokov of late.

Team scope:

Sabres -- The seven-game Western swing made a right turn in L.A. and now moves north to San Jose and Vancouver before Buffalo finally returns home Wednesday. The Sabres are 2-1-2 so far, the lone regulation loss in Anaheim with Patrick Lalime in net. He was pulled after allowing four goals in the first 10:26 of play.

Miller took over, allowing one more goal but giving his teammates a chance to get back in it as the Ducks prevailed 5-4.

In Los Angeles, Miller went head-to-head with USA Hockey teammate Jonathan Quick, who matched Miller with three goals allowed in regulation, then secured the extra point in the shootout, 4-3.

"That was a battle on both ends," coach Lindy Ruff said. "I thought both teams put a lot of work into it. They play hard in their end, and they're a physical team. They've got some big bodies, so we knew we were in for a battle."

Sharks --
The Big Teal Machine just keeps chugging along, riding a four-game winning streak, an 8-2-1 record in January and a 15-2-1 mark since a five-game losing streak in early December. That means they're first in the NHL again.

They can knock in pucks by the bucket as Calgary found out in a 9-1 win on Monday, or they'll flat out stone you like they have just about the entire League since Dec. 11, the last time they allowed more than two goals to an opponent.

Defense is the name of that game, and the Sharks have an absolute clampdown going when they're down a man. They haven't allowed a power-play goal in 29 chances, which coincides with this latest string of 13 of a possible 14 points in the last seven games.

"Within the system itself, there's no magic," coach Todd McLellan said. "You have to be prepared."

Who's hot --
The goalies are, for sure. Nabokov has benefited from the guys playing in front of him, but a 5-0-1 record in his last six starts and a 0.99 goals-against average says he has something to do with it as well. Miller isn't doing too badly, either, going 6-0-2 with a 1.94 GAA in his last eight starts.

Tim Connolly had two assists on Thursday to keep a 14-game points streak alive, the longest active in the NHL and four shy of Gilbert Perreault's franchise record set in 1971-72. Connolly has six goals and 17 assists in that span.

Patrick Marleau leads the NHL with 35 goals and the Sharks are 19-4-2 when he scores. Joe Thornton leads the League with 53 assists.

Injury report --
Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle is a central figure in that vaunted Sharks defense and is an important source of offense from the blue line as well, but an undisclosed upper-body injury kept him out Thursday and may knock him out Saturday as well.

Stat pack --
Neither goalie was at his best last time these two teams met, but Nabokov didn't have such a good time last time the Sharks were in HP Pavilion on Dec. 8, 2007. He was pulled after allowing four second-period goals in a 7-1 loss.

Puck drop --
The way the Olympic qualification groups are set up, a meeting in Vancouver is unlikely for Miller and Nabokov, so their fans will have to settle for a regular-season matchup or two.

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