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Sharks hope to bounce back in L.A.

by Frank Mentesana
SHARKS (36-26-10) at KINGS (35-25-12)


Last 10: San Jose 3-4-3; Los Angeles 7-3-0.

Season Series: This is the fourth of six meetings between these Pacific division foes, with the home team winning each of the first three matchups. Each club posted a two-goal victory in November before the Sharks claimed a 2-1 shootout decision in December -- which was the most recent encounter.

Big Story: If the playoffs started Tuesday, both of these teams would be on the outside looking in, by the slimmest of margins. The Kings and Sharks each have 82 points in 72 games, trailing eighth-place Colorado by a single point. Fortunately for both squads though, there are still nearly three weeks left in the regular season, and each team can certainly wind up in the top eight in the crowded Western Conference. They even have a very reasonable chance at winning the Pacific and finishing as the third seed, as they both trail division-leading Dallas by only a point, as well. The ultimate deciding factor in all of this might be how the Sharks and Kings play against each other, as they will do battle three times between now and the end of the regular season. After Tuesday's crucial contest, these California rivals will again square off in what will almost certainly be a vital home-and-home series to finish the regular season.

Heading into this homestretch, Los Angeles is playing much better hockey than its Northern-California counterparts. The Kings, who have won seven of their last nine, are aiming for a season-high five-game winning streak. Meanwhile, the Sharks lost at home to Anaheim on Monday night, dropping them to 10th in the West and bumping idle L.A. into ninth since the Kings have one more regulation/overtime win. San Jose has just five wins in its past 18 games and only three of those five were in regulation.

Team Scope:

Sharks: Despite their recent spotty play, the Sharks still had a chance to overtake the Stars for the top spot in the Pacific with a win over the Ducks Monday. However, Anaheim chased San Jose starter Antti Niemi during a three-goal second-period and dealt the Sharks a crushing 5-3 loss. Niemi, who had been playing very well over 11 straight starts, surrendered four goals on 26 shots -- the first time he allowed more than three goals in a game since Feb. 16. Martin Havlat, Ryane Clowe and Joe Pavelski scored on Jeff Deslauriers, who gave Jonas Hiller a much-needed rest and made just his second start of the season.

"Disappointed is a really good word," coach Todd McLellan said. "The lack of energy and jump that we had as a team is baffling. When we're supposed to be as desperate as we are, apparently, I can't figure out why we didn't have that jump. On some nights, if you don't have it, you have to rely on your hockey sense and your brain to put you in a position to be successful, and we didn't have that going either. We were the second place team in a lot of areas tonight, and at the end of the night, on the score, too."

Kings: After struggling all season to put the puck in the net, the Kings' offense has come alive in the last couple of weeks. They have scored 16 goals during their current four-game winning streak, which has featured some tough competition. The latest of those victories came Saturday against Vezina candidate Pekka Rinne and the playoff-bound Nashville Predators in the opener of a four-game homestand. With the game tied 1-1 midway through the third, Dustin Penner, Dwight King and Kyle Clifford all scored during a span of 8:15 to break the game open and send L.A. to a 4-2 win. Los Angeles hadn't scored that many goals in the third period since Nov. 17 at Anaheim. That streak of 52 consecutive games with two or fewer goals in the third period had been the longest such streak in the NHL.

"It was a huge game that had a lot of meaning for us," said Penner, who also chipped in with an assist for just his second multi-point game of the season. "We have teams ahead of us that just keep winning, so we've got to do the same thing. Against a team like Nashville, where it was 1-1 going into the third, it was time to separate the men from the boys. I think we grew a lot, overall, in this game, especially in the third period to come out like that. We got contributions from (a lot) of guys."

One of those guys was Trevor Lewis, who had two assists. He had a total of two assists in his first 61 games this season prior to Saturday. Anze Kopitar had the Kings' first goal and Jonathan Bernier made 19 saves in his 12th start of the season, improving to 6-1-0 lifetime against Nashville.
Who's Hot: After a two-goal outing against Detroit on Saturday, Havlat had a goal and an assist in Monday's loss. … Captain Dustin Brown's 10-game point streak was snapped against the Preds, but Kopitar stayed hot. The 24-year-old Slovenian, who has scored in three straight games, has points in nine of his last 10 with six goals and five assists in that stretch. Jonathan Quick should be back in net Tuesday, looking for his sixth win in seven outings. He’ll also aim to lower his 2.00 goals-against average, which is already fourth-best in the League.

Injury Report: San Jose forward Michal Handzus (undisclosed) hasn't played since March 10, while Tommy Wingels (upper body) has missed the last four games and T.J. Galiardi (upper body) has sat out the last two. … Los Angeles is still without forwards Simon Gagne (concussion) and Kevin Westgarth (hand); Scott Parse (hip) is out for the season.

Stat Pack: The Kings have opened the scoring in nine of their last 11 games. They have 18 first-period goals in that span, whereas they managed only 28 first-period goals in their first 61 games.

Puck Drop: There is one player on each club who seemingly has had a major impact on his team's results: Jeff Carter for L.A. and Havlat for San Jose.

The Kings are 8-3-0 in the 11 games since Carter was acquired in a trade from Columbus. They have scored 37 goals in that stretch and have also reached the four-goal mark in seven of those games -- improving their record to 18-0-2 when scoring at least four goals. The London, Ont. native has five goals and three assists since arriving in Hollywood.

Havlat has notched three goals and an assist in three games since returning from a 39-game absence due to a hamstring injury. His second goal against the Red Wings was an overtime winner, lifting the Sharks to a significant 3-2 win. He also opened the scoring with a power-play tally against the Ducks on Monday, though San Jose could not hold a lead in that game and eventually lost. Overall, the Sharks are 18-8-3 this season with Havlat in the lineup.

"He's such an important part of our hockey club," McLellan said after Saturday's win over Detroit. "And I don't even think we realize yet how much of an impact he can have. He worked very hard when he was hurt. I think we were all anxious to get him back."
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