SAN JOSE -- Two teams headed in opposite directions will collide Thursday night when the struggling San Jose Sharks face the surging Boston Bruins at HP Pavilion.
The Sharks have lost back-to-back games and have tumbled to 10th place in the Western Conference standings. After a four-game skid, the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins have won two straight, including an 8-0 thrashing of Toronto on Monday night, and own the No. 2 seed in the East.
The Sharks, naturally, are in desperation mode, but coach Todd McLellan said they've got find a way to loosen up and stop being so tight on the ice.
"First of all, we understand where we're at," McLellan said after his team's morning skate. "There's an anxiousness around our team which should be there. I feel at times it's a nervousness that holds us back. We have to be able to go out and play free. It's not about one or two individuals carrying the weight of the team on their shoulders, it's about distributing it evenly … and when you do that your team plays well. When you take too much on or not enough on, you have a tendency not to play well."
The Bruins don't have to worry about making the playoffs, but they're fighting to hold off Ottawa, which stands just three points back in the Northeast Division.
"I know they're in a battle for a playoff spot," Bruins coach Claude Julien said of the Sharks. "This is a good team across the ice from here. The one thing I do know is that we've gone through the same situation of really struggling to find our game, and eventually when you do, you see what kind of team you really are.
"It's a matter of them doing the same thing, and right now our focus is not to let them have that happen against us - do it against somebody else. But we have to be ready. Everybody's in a fighting mode here and everybody's in a situation where they want to finish as high as they can and some are battling for playoff spots."
Boston will open a three-game California road trip against the Sharks, hoping to build on the strides it made with a 3-2 shootout win against Philadelphia and a rout of the Maple Leafs. Even though they scored eight goals against Toronto, the Bruins pointed to improved defensive play for their two-game turnaround.
"I think we were just playing more Bruins-style hockey, playing with a bit of a chip on our shoulders, going out and competing, winning battles, and I think that's really where we start playing well, when we start competing hard and winning all those little battles wherever they may be," forward Tyler Seguin said. "When we stay consistent with that, after having a good game in Philly, and regardless of the score against Toronto, just to see us competing hard and doing the little things right, that's what makes us happy."
Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg said one "challenge" they'll face against San Jose is to avoid being "too high" after their 8-0 win.
"You want to focus on what you did well that game and try to bring it into a game tonight and just build on what you've done well," Seidenberg said. "The last two games have been better. We're still trying to get our consistent game back that we had before our slump the last couple months. Everybody knows we're not out of it yet and we have to keep building."
The Sharks thought they had busted out of their slump when they beat Nashville and Detroit last week. But they followed those two wins with a 5-3 home loss to Anaheim on Monday and a 5-2 loss at Los Angeles the next night.
"We know we're behind the eight-ball and we've got to win some games to get in the playoffs," said Sharks captain Joe Thornton, a former Bruin. "It has to start tonight. We're facing a really good team, so we have to be on our toes, ready to go.
"They're just a complete team, right from the goaltender out. They're flying high off that eight-nothing win last game. We'd like to score early, get some confidence and go from there.''
The Sharks beat Boston 4-2 in October during a 5-1 road trip when they were riding high.
"When we have fun, we usually play well," Thornton said. "We've got to get back to that tonight."
Forward Logan Couture said no one in the Sharks' dressing room has lost faith.
"Everyone in this room believes we're going to be in the playoffs," Couture said. "We're going to make this push down the stretch. We've got nine games to play well and make the push."
The Sharks announced that rookie forward Tommy Wingels is the team's nominee for the Masterton Trophy.
Here's how the lineups could look Thursday night when the San Jose Sharks face the Boston Bruins at HP Pavilion:
Patrick Marleau - Joe Thornton - Joe Pavelski
Ryane Clowe - Logan Couture - Martin Havlat
Dominic Moore - Michal Handzus - Torrey Mitchell
Brad Winchester - Andrew Desjardins - Daniel Winnik
Marc-Edouard Vlasic - Dan Boyle
Douglas Murray - Brent Burns
Colin White - Jason Demers
Niemi, despite back-to-back rough games, will make his 13th straight start in goal for the Sharks. Handzus will likely return to the lineup after missing the past six games with a lower body injury. McLellan said there's a chance Wingels (upper body) could return after missing five games. Forward Ryane Clowe and defenseman Dan Boyle didn't practice Thursday morning but will play tonight, McLellan said.
Milan Lucic - David Krejci - Jordan Caron
Brad Marchand - Patrice Bergeron - Tyler Seguin
Benoit Pouliot - Chris Kelly - Brian Rolston
Daniel Paille - Gregory Campbell - Shawn Thornton
Zdeno Chara - Dennis Seidenberg
Andrew Ference - Johnny Boychuk
Greg Zanon - Adam McQuaid
- Thomas, the first goalie off the ice Thursday morning, will start for the 13th time in the past 14 games and make his 14th consecutive appearance. He's coming off his fifth shutout of the season but faced just 13 shots against Toronto.