By Allan Muir
It's a little early to call tonight's battle between San Jose and Chicago a playoff preview, but it's never too soon for a gut check.
The NHL's top two teams will face their stiffest test of the season when they meet in San Jose (7:30 PST, NHL Network in Canada, CSN in San Jose and Chicago). The Sharks and Hawks have just one regulation loss between them after 18 games, but both come into the contest on something of a slide.
The Sharks are 2-1-1 in their last four, but three of those games went to the shootout before they finally lost for the first time in regulation -- 2-1 on Monday night in Anaheim. Their power play, which was so lethal during the first few games, is now on a one-for-18 skid after going scoreless in six chances against the Ducks. Coach Todd McLellan said his team is getting "too cute" with the extra man and needs to get back to basics tonight to jump-start an offense that has generated just six goals in the Sharks' last four games.
Fortunately, the Sharks have been nails on defense, allowing a league-low 1.67 goals-against per game. Former Blackhawk Antti Niemi (6-0-1, 1.80, .936) is playing the best hockey of his career, supported by what may be the league's deepest blueline. It helps the cause that San Jose usually starts out with the puck. The Sharks are dominant in the circles, second only to Boston with a 57.3 winning percentage. Next-gen stars Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski have combined for eight goals in their past five games to lead the offense.
At 7-0-2, the Hawks are the last remaining team without a regulation loss, but they're coming off a wildly undeserved 3-2 win in Calgary on Saturday night. Chicago was outshot 47-19 in the contest and needed a Marian Hossa tying goal with 2.3 seconds remaining to set up Patrick Kane's clincher in the shootout.
Coach Joel Quenneville knows his team got away with one at the Saddledome.
"That was criminal," he said. "They've got to call the cops after that performance. [Ray Emery] stole two points. He was spectacular. I've never ever been outplayed, out-chanced like that in my life. That was a special performance."
Special or not, Emery will be back on the bench as the Hawks turn to Corey Crawford against the Sharks. Crawford is one of the season's early surprises, ringing up a 5-0-2 mark to go along with a 1.66 GAA and a .934 save percentage. But he's never won in San Jose, posting an 0-2-1 mark at the Shark Tank.
Kane, as dynamic as he was during his rookie season, keys Chicago's offense and has produced at least one point in eight of his nine games. Marian Hossa, fully recovered from the concussion he suffered during the playoffs, leads the team with six goals. The group should get a boost from the expected return of No. 2 center Dave Bolland. This one could turn on tired legs. The Sharks are 5-0-1 at home, but will be playing the second half of a back-to-back. The Hawks, 5-0-2 on the road, have been off since Saturday.