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Sharks and Coyotes battle for top spot in Pacific

by Corey Masisak
SHARKS (43-23-9) at COYOTES (41-24-11)

TV -- CSN-CA (HD), FS-A (HD)

-- San Jose 5-2-3; Phoenix 8-1-1

Season series -- San Jose has won each of the first three meetings and the Sharks have scored at least four goals in each of the contests.

Big story -- This is the first of three showdowns between these clubs with first place in the Pacific Division and a top-three seed in play. They will meet again in a home-and-home series to complete the regular season. Phoenix cal pull even with the Sharks in points by winning in regulation.

Team Scope:

Sharks -- San Jose lost in a shootout to Los Angeles on Thursday, but the Sharks are 7-2-3 this month and 22-4-4 since Jan. 15. They were in 12th place in the Western Conference on Jan. 14, but could be in second at the end of Saturday night with a victory and a loss by the Detroit Red Wings.

Offense has not been a problem for the Sharks of late. San Jose has scored 26 goals in the past six games, including six twice and five once.

Coyotes -- Phoenix lost five games in a row from Feb. 23 to March 3 and had dropped to seventh place in the West -- just two points from being tied for 11th. Since then the Coyotes have stormed within two points of the Sharks for third in the conference and first in the Pacific Division. Phoenix has won eight of 10 and claimed 17 of 20 points along the way.

The Coyotes have been beating up on the other two West divisions during this stretch. Only one of the 10 games has been against a Pacific Division foe, but five of the last six are (three against San Jose and one each against Dallas and Los Angeles). For the season Phoenix is 26-8-5 against the other two West divisions but only 9-10-0 against the Pacific.

Who's hot -- Shane Doan has 11 points during the team's 10-game surge and at least one point in 17 of his past 21 contests for the Coyotes. Radim Vrbata has 8 points in the past seven games. … For San Jose, Joe Pavelski has 4 goals and 14 points in the past six games. He had five straight multi-point games before just one point (a goal) in the loss to the Kings.

Injury report -- Defenseman Ed Jovanovski (orbital bone) and Martin Hanzal (undisclosed) are out for the Coyotes. Lauri Korpikoski left Thursday's game with an upper-body injury and is questionable; the Coyotes recalled Ryan Hollweg from AHL San Antonio.

Stat pack -- Before last season, the franchise record for wins in Phoenix/Winnipeg was 43. The Coyotes won 50 last season, and splitting the final six games of this season would give them the second-most in club history with 44. … There has been one constant during this 30-game stretch of dominance for the Sharks -- goaltender Antti Niemi has started every one of them. Niemi was 8-9-2 this season at the start of this streak, but is now tied for 12th in the League with 30 victories.

Puck drop -- Ilya Bryzgalov is once again fashioning a wonderful season worthy of being in the discussion for a couple of major NHL trophies for the Coyotes. He's started 32 of the past 34 games for Phoenix, and a win against the Sharks would tie him with Bob Essensa for the most career wins in franchise history (129).

Bryzgalov is 34-18-8 with a .921 save percentage and 2.47 goals against average. There are other goalies with better statistics, which might keep him from being a Vezina finalist, but there's no doubt he's the MVP of a team that doesn't have a single 20-goal scorer yet is currently seventh in the League standings.

"He is an elite player in this League, and I knew that before I got here," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett told reporters after Bryzgalov shut out Columbus on Thursday. "He is top notch, and we rely on him heavily."

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