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Sharks and Coyotes open home-and home series

by Frank Mentesana
SHARKS (47-24-9) at COYOTES (42-25-13)

TV -- CSN-California+, KTVK (HD)

Last 10 -- San Jose 8-1-1; Phoenix 6-2-2

Season series -- This is the fifth of six meetings, as the Pacific Division rivals begin a home-and-home series to close the regular season. San Jose has outscored Phoenix 17-7 in winning all four matchups this season, scoring at least four goals in each. Patrick Marleau has 4 goals and 2 assists in those games, while Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski have 3 goals and 4 assists each. The Sharks' dominance over the Coyotes stretches back to last season -- they've won eight in a row over the 'Yotes, and four straight at Arena since last losing there on Dec. 12, 2009.

Big story -- For the Coyotes, it's as simple as it gets this time of the year: Earn a point and earn a spot in the post-season. They could also even secure a playoff berth with one lost point by Dallas, who beat the Avalanche 4-2 on Thursday to put everything on hold for at least another day. The Stars square off with the Avs again on Friday, with that game beginning one hour before the puck drops between the Sharks and Coyotes. Basically, that means the 'Yotes could clinch a post-season position while still playing the Sharks, if the Stars lose in Colorado.

With a fourth straight division title locked up, the only mystery surrounding the Sharks is if they will claim the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. They are one point ahead of the third-place Red Wings, with two games to play for each club.

Team Scope:

Sharks -- San Jose looks to bounce back from a 6-2 trouncing at the hands of Corey Perry and the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday in what was a potential preview of a first-round matchup. Perry capped a hat trick with his 50th goal of the season, helping to snap the Sharks' four-game winning streak and handing them their first regulation loss since March 14. Antero Niittymaki made his first start since Jan. 13, providing some rest for Antti Niemi, who had made 34 consecutive starts. Niittymaki saw plenty of action, especially in the second period when Anaheim was given five power plays, successfully converting three of them to break the game open.

"The team in black (the Ducks), they buckled it up and came to play really hard," said coach Todd McLellan, whose team is still 26-5-4 since Jan. 15. "I thought our guys gave themselves permission, after a long, really good stretch, to take the night off. We're all disappointed about that…I expect it to be a one-time event."

Expect Niemi back in goal on Friday -- he is 4-0-1 with a 1.97 goals-against average against the Coyotes in his career, and 3-0-0 with a 2.00 GAA against them this season.

Coyotes -- The Coyotes are the slimmest margin away from making a second straight playoff appearance for the first time since qualifying five consecutive times from 1996 through 2000. They could have clinched with a win on Wednesday, but instead, the Kings became the fourth team in the West to lock up a playoff berth by beating the Coyotes 3-2 in a shootout. The last three games for Phoenix have all been decided in a shootout, with the 'Yotes losing the last two. The point they notched against L.A. gave them 97, placing them in a fifth-place tie with Nashville. They also sit two points ahead of Anaheim and Chicago, and just one point behind the Kings for fourth.

"We did everything we could to win the game," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "We made a couple of mistakes on their goals, but in the end we competed hard and tried to find a win. Unfortunately we only got one point. We've got to find our way into the playoffs in the last two games."

Who's hot -- For Phoenix, Lee Stempniak has two goals on 11 shots -- plus an assist -- over his last two games. … On the Sharks' side, Pavelski had his 10-game point streak snapped last game, but he still has 19 points (6 goals, 13 assists) in his last 11 games. Patrick Marleau was also held off the scoresheet in the loss to Anaheim, but he has 27 points (15 goals, 12 assists) in his last 19 games.

Injury report -- The Coyotes had some key players return to the lineup in Los Angeles. Defenseman Ed Jovanovski played for the first time since suffering fractured orbital bones on Feb. 17. Forwards Lauri Korpikoski and Taylor Pyatt also returned after missing recent games because of upper-body injuries. That only leaves center Martin Hanzal, who has missed the past 13 games because of a lower-body injury. He did skate with the team on Thursday, and coach Dave Tippett said after practice that it will be a game-time decision as to whether or not Hanzal plays on Friday. … San Jose's Ryane Clowe sat out last game with a lower-body injury, while Kent Huskins and Scott Nichol have been out with upper-body injuries. Both Clowe and Nichol could play Friday.

Stat pack -- With one more goal by Pavelski, the Sharks will have seven 20-goal scorers. The only other team that could claim that is Philadelphia, although Ville Leino, stuck on 19 goals, could soon make it eight for the Flyers. In contrast, the Coyotes are the only team in the League without a 20-goal scorer, although they do have 10 players with at least 10 goals. Captain Shane Doan and Stempniak share the team lead with 19 goals. … Joe Thornton is one point shy of 1,000 for his career.

Puck drop -- Should the Coyotes and Sharks square off in the first round of the playoffs, they could conceivably play each other nine times in a row: twice this weekend and seven times in the playoffs, if the series goes to its limit.

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