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Coyotes at Sharks Preview: Sharks hockey is back

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Both teams return after a long, long layoff.

Jan 16, 2019; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Coyotes center Derek Stepan (21) carries the puck as San Jose Sharks right wing Joonas Donskoi (27) defends during the third period at Gila River Arena. Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

All right Sharks fans, we have reached the official end of the All-Star break and the bye week and we’re ready for a full on push to the playoffs. The unofficial second half of the season starts tonight for Team Teal and it starts against the Desert Dogs (that will be my one and only use of the nickname, so cherish it).

It’s been a long layoff for the Sharks — 10 days to be exact — so let me remind you where the team stands. With a 29-16-7 record, the Sharks are holding on strong to the second position in the Pacific Division. The time off has given the team a chance to heal. After spending a few weeks on the injured reserve list, it looks like Marc-Edouard Vlasic is ready to suit up tonight.

“Jumbo” Joe Thornton will also play tonight, though he still isn’t at 100 percent.

The one Sharks player that’s questionable is Erik Karlsson, who has an illness of some sort. He missed Friday’s practice because he wasn’t feeling well enough to skate. We’ll have to wait and see if this is a one game deal or something worse.

As for the Arizona Coyotes, they’re 23-23-4 for the season, but they’re trending up. The Coyotes are 6-2-2 in their last 10 games. They may be sixth in the Pacific Division, but the team is only a few points shy of the second slot in the wild card race. That’s the spot currently occupied by the Colorado Avalanche. In other words, they are very much in the hunt for a playoff spot and that’s astounding given their injury luck this season.

The team’s top defenseman, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, is on the trip, but is questionable for tonight’s game. The team is still without defenseman and former Shark Jason Demers, as well as presumed starting goaltender Antti Raanta. Both have been on Injured Reserve since November. In December, forwards Michael Grabner and Nich Schmaltz joined them on the IR and then in January, forward Brad Richardson also landed on the list. In other words, the team is banged up.

Rest or rust?

There’s always a lot of debate over whether a team is better served by having a few days off or hurt by that time off. A week before the Sharks headed into the All-Star break, the team was firing on all cylinders and dominating opponents, leaving many pundits to worry that a break would slow down the Shark train. Then, the team let in 24 goals in four games (Jan. 16 - 22) and the break couldn’t come fast enough.

San Jose has not played in 10 days, but the Coyotes also haven't played in nine days, so the two teams are on pretty even footing when it comes to time off.

I’m an optimist in this case and I think the time off will have helped. For one thing, Thornton needed a rest, he’s not the young ’un he used to be. I think the 10 days off will have given him a chance to refresh and reset and that will be important because Jumbo is going to be essential in the playoffs. When you have a future Hall of Famer like Thornton on your third line, you have depth and that’s what wins championships.

As for the rest of the team, I think that time away from hockey was important for guys like Martin Jones and Timo Meier. For Jones, he needed to get his head right. There’s a rock solid goaltender in there somewhere and I hope Jones found him during the break.

In terms of Meier, the kid’s been great and he’s playing the right way, but he’s had trouble finding the back of the net. Hopefully a few days off will have scared away Meier’s bad luck and we can get back to Timo Time.

The return of Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

I’m excited that Vlasic’s ready to go for the playoff push, but I’m also a little worried. I was watching the Sharks play during the time that Vlasic was out and it really felt like the team moved out of its defensive zone faster. While I realize that had a lot to do with Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson eating Vlasic’s minutes, it was the kind of game that I think the Sharks need to play to win.

Per Kevin Kurz of The Athletic, Head Coach Pete DeBoer talked to the media about Vlasic yesterday.

“This is a big final push for him,” said DeBoer. “I don’t think he’s had the season he wanted to have so far. He’s dealt with some injuries and some other things. He’s a proud guy and he’s a huge part of this. He needs to find another level for us over the last 30 games. He knows that, and I think he will.”

So basically, I know it, the coach knows it and Vlasic knows it. He needs to step up his game.

Martin Jones and Aaron Dell

The NHL trade deadline is Feb. 25. That means I have 23 more days to sit here and play General Manager from my couch. If I’m Doug Wilson, I’m sitting here wondering what in the world to do with Jones and Dell.

Jones and Dell weren’t stand-on-your-head goaltenders last season, but they were reliable and responsible. They were the solid performers you wanted against your back when you were faced with a hard place. Then something happened (possibly the rule changes for the goaltending equipment) and the duo fell apart.

If I’m Wilson, Jones has about five or six games coming out of the break to prove he’s the guy. If he doesn’t, I’m working the phones.

Wilson built this team to win now. This is the Stanley Cup year because come July, Karlsson could be gone. Joe Pavelski could be gone. Thornton could be gone or retire. This is the year and Jones better step up or he could find himself sitting down.

Bold Prediction: A very, very sloppy first period as the teams try and remember how to play hockey. That sloppiness bleeds into the second period, and then the third and the score a ridiculous 9-9. Things end in a shootout and everyone goes home very unhappy.

Post your predictions below (This is really a test to see if you’ve read all the way to the end because if you have you’ll certainly have a comment on my ridiculous bold prediction). We’ll see you at game time!