Red hot Sharks take on Mike Smith and the Phoenix Coyotes

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7:30 PST
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7-4-3, 17 points 9-4-1, 19 points
8th in Western Conference 4th in Western Conference
Television
CSN-CA (HD)
Radio
98.5 KFOX, Sjsharks.com
Antagonists
Five For Howling
Ice Chips

Following the San Jose Sharks 6-3 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes on opening night, it was easy to think that Phoenix wouldn't be winning to many games this season. The Coyotes looked thoroughly disorganized throughout the evening, getting trounced by the Sharks in nearly every game situation you can think outside of the power play. When the dust settled Mike Smith had been battered with 52 shots, 6 of which found their way past him into the net; and the loss of Ilya Bryzgalov, who signed a massive nine-year deal to play in Philadelphia, seemed to sting even more than it already did.

And yet, for the third straight season, the Coyotes have managed to deal with ownership issues, a piecemeal roster, and limited scoring depth in their quest for a playoffs appearance. The aforementioned Smith has been extremely consistent between the pipes for the Coyotes. Consider this-- to go along with his 2.41 GAA and .925 overall SV%, Smith has only posted a sub-.900 SV% in 2 games in 11 appearances this season. Those are good, quality, numbers for a player many gave up on in Tampa Bay, and especially for a player who has been exposed to a lot of rubber lately.

It seems as if every single season someone says "it seems as if every single season people write-off the Coyotes, but here they are, still competitive.", and this year is no different-- Phoenix, still competitive, still kickin'. Credit Dave Tippet for continuing to utilize whatever hotline to the big man upstairs he has programmed on speed dial, and for the Phoenix players for being able to focus under these circumstances three years running

With all that being said, the Coyotes are still a team that I find hard betting on to make the playoffs. The goaltending has been there thus far, but Smith is outperforming his career totals by a fairly wide margin and should be due for a little of that family friendly stuff they call regression to the mean. Players such as Shane Doan, Keith Yandle, Radim Vrbata, Ray Whitney, and Martin Hanzal are good players but will only get you so far.

What I do like about the Coyotes is how they handle those issues by spreading out their scoring depth. Eight players have scored three or more goals for Phoenix this year. It's always been an asset they've utilized to their advantage, and this season is no different.

We've talked about goaltending a lot this week but there's one more thing I wanted to add before wrapping things up today. Things have been trending in the right direction for Antti Niemi as he has posted back to back quality starts Minnesota and Los Angeles. As a whole he hasn't been very good this year of course-- if we're looking strictly at SV% we can see this quite clearly. A .903 SV% is downright sickly for a player of his importance, especially when compared to other top-flight goalies around the League.

However, if we isolate our variables a bit and only observe his performance at even strength we can see where the real issue lies for Niemi. Even strength SV% is one of the best ways to try and figure out a goaltender's true talent level, as PK SV% tends to fluctuate every year based on how sporadic and volatile the shorthanded situation can be.

Compared to netminders who have at least 5 GP this year, Niemi's .922 even strength SV% currently ranks 24th in the NHL. That's not where he is expected to be after finishing tied for 7th in this category last season, but it's an average number that gives his team some chances to win hockey games.

Niemi's biggest issues come when San Jose's shorthanded unit hits the ice, where he has posted an .822 SV% that is among the worst in the League (not hard to do when you're the starter for a team that's been so poor in this category of course). It's sort of a chicken or the egg argument-- is the PK unit (forwards, defenseman) responsible for Niemi's numbers being so low, or has it been largely his fault? Niemi's SV% totals last season were fairly poor as well (.875 SV%) so it could be a case of playing style. I'm not all too convinced that is the answer either, but it is something to keep in mind.

Prediction: Sharks win 3-1. Goals by Handzus, Braun, and Couture.

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