By all indications, defenseman Dan Boyle will return to the Sharks' lineup tonight after missing seven games (and most of an eighth) following this dirty hit by Maxim Lapierre for which the Blues forward drew a five-game suspension. It shouldn't come as a surprise that San Jose, despite compiling a 4-1-2 record in Boyle's absence, missed the hell out of its top two-way blueliner. The Sharks have averaged nine fewer shots per 60 minutes of 5v5 play and nearly twenty fewer shots per 60 minutes of 5v4 play without their blueline scoring leader from a season ago. Granted, injuries to Brent Burns and Matt Nieto have figured into those totals as well but the Sharks certainly haven't been as dangerous offensively sans Boyle.
Fittingly, Boyle will make his return against a Phoenix Coyotes team that leads the league in points by defensemen. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who really came into his own as one of the best defenders in the NHL last season, has 11 points in 14 games while logging the team's toughest even-strength minutes on a shutdown pairing with Zbynek Michalek. Keith Yandle, who should quarterback Team USA's power play next February in Sochi, is currently on a five-game point streak over which he's amassed nine points of his own.
Like the Sharks, the Coyotes struggled to put the puck in the net last season, finishing 21st in the league with a 2.52 goals-per-game average. Fueled by an activated blueline and the addition of Mike Ribeiro (as well as a healthy dose of help from the hockey gods), Phoenix currently sits 3rd in the league in goals per game. They also rank 3rd in the Pacific Division, setting up what should be an exciting tilt between division rivals and two unexpectedly high-octane offenses.
|9-3-2, 20 points
||10-1-2, 22 points|
|3rd in Pacific
||1st in Pacific
Projected Sharks Lineup
Projected Coyotes Lineup