SHARKS (29-12-6) at PANTHERS (18-21-7)
TV: CSN-CA, FS-F
Last 10: San Jose 6-4-0; Florida 4-4-2
Season series: The San Jose Sharks and Florida Panthers play the first of two games. The teams last played Dec. 3, 2011, when the Panthers used a three-goal second period to defeat the Sharks 5-3 at SAP Center.
Big story: The Sharks have a long way to go if they want to catch the NHL-leading Anaheim Ducks in the Pacific Division, but with 12 games left before the Olympic break, coach Todd McLellan and his players aren't necessarily setting small goals in an effort to cut into the Ducks' lead.
"We’re not going to pick a number. We haven't done that in six years so [we're] not going to start now," McLellan said. "I don't know as we finish this string of games here, throughout Florida, we will have played 15 of 23 on the road in a pretty grinding schedule. After that, we get a good chunk of games at home."
The Sharks' grind resumes after opening a three-game road trip Tuesday with a 2-1 shootout win against the Washington Capitals. San Jose heads south to Sunrise, Fla., to play Florida, which is 4-1-2 in its past seven games and eight points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Sharks: San Jose earned its eighth shootout victory Tuesday in Washington, matching the Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs for the League lead. Antti Niemi stopped three Capitals and Patrick Marleau scored the only goal of the tiebreaker.
Niemi has allowed 12 goals on 41 shootout attempts this season, a .707 success rate (the League average is .682). In his past six, Niemi is 5-1 and has stopped 17 or 23 shots attempts, a .739 save percentage.
"He's a big man, and he's very patient, takes a lot of the net away," McLellan told CSN Bay Area. "Just not overly jumpy in the net, and he allows the shooter to make the first move and then he reacts from there."
Panthers: Florida returned home from a three-game road trip with a flourish, scoring three first-period goals en route to a 4-2 win against the New York Islanders on Tuesday. However, issues remain on the power play, where the Panthers are 0-for-22 in their past seven games and went 0-for-5 against the Islanders.
"We know the pucks have to start going in," coach Peter Horachek said following practice Wednesday. "But when you see the number of chances we have, we have to look at it as an encouragement. If you have no chances, no times up the ice, it's a negative. We're getting into the zone and getting multiple scoring chances. Hopefully that starts to become a factor and start winning games for us."
Who's hot: Niemi made 35 saves for the Sharks on Tuesday and has allowed one goal in four of his past seven games, including three straight. Forward Joe Pavelski has five goals in seven games this month … Panthers goalie Tim Thomas has allowed two goals or fewer in eight of the past nine games. Forward Brad Boyes is 2-3-5 in his past five.
Injury report: The Sharks have five players on injured reserve: forwards Logan Couture (hand surgery), Martin Havlat (lower body), Tomas Hertl (knee surgery), Adam Burish (back surgery) and Raffi Torres (torn ACL). … Panthers forward Jesse Winchester (bruised hand) is on IR but Horacheck is hoping he'll soon start practicing and be available for the next road trip, which begins Saturday. Defensemen Alex Petrovic (upper body) and Dylan Olsen (lower body) are on IR.
Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNHL