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Sharks at Wild Preview: Postseason pressure

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Sharks are looking to sweep season series and stay on top of the Pacific.

Dec 18, 2018; Saint Paul, MN, USA; San Jose Sharks forward Joe Thornton (19) controls the puck during the third period against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center. Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight, the San Jose Sharks head to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, looking to sweep their season series against the Minnesota Wild.

The Sharks (41-19-8, 2nd Pacific) are likely still buzzing from Saturday’s thrilling overtime win against the St. Louis Blues that propelled them into the Western Conference’s top position, while the Wild (33-28-8, 5th Central) are battling to remain the West’s second wild card playoff representative.

San Jose should have no trouble finding themselves motivated for tonight’s contest, as they’re in a zero margin for error race with the Calgary Flames for first place in the Pacific Division and home ice advantage throughout the Western Conference Playoffs. With last night’s win over Vegas, Calgary is back into first place, for now.

Minnesota finds their club in a similar position; they’re only a single point ahead of the surging Arizona Coyotes, who, with a game in hand, could bump the Wild out of the playoff picture with a victory.

Needless to say, both teams will be playing with a signature pre-playoff intensity fans of the NHL look forward to all year.

The Wild are 2-1-2 in their last five games, in which they dropped back-to-back shootouts against the Nashville Predators, while shutting out the Eastern Conference juggernaut Tampa Bay Lightning 3-0. The Sharks are 4-1-0 over their last five games, winning the last four consecutively.

Injury concerns

Though both teams have dealt with adversity in the form of the injury bug, Minnesota should be getting a boost to their lineup — centerman Victor Rask, who has been out since Feb. 12, is likely to return. Having lost captain Mikko Koivu to an ACL tear five days prior to Rask’s injury, the Wild have utilized a carousel of players at center ice. First, it was Mikael Granlund, who was traded to Nashville at the deadline, followed by rookie Luke Kunin, who was moved to center, but sustained an injury in the recent win against the Lightning and is now day-to-day. If Rask makes his return against the Sharks, it’ll be a shot in the arm for the injury plagued Wild.

The Sharks will again be without Evander Kane and Erik Karlsson, who are still sidelined with “middle body” and groin-related injuries, respectively. Additionally, Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski have played the last few games while fighting off the flu, with coach Peter DeBoer noting they aren’t the only players in the locker room dealing with the illness.

Does Timo Meier stay hot? If not, who steps up?

Timo Meier has been a streaky goal scorer for the Sharks this year, and with five goals in his last four games, including two on Saturday’s contest against the Blues, he’s been on top of his game recently.

Maintaining streaks like Meier’s is no easy feat, and it isn’t a stretch to imagine his goal scoring rate slows in the near future. If it does, who will pick up the slack? Kevin Labanc has strung together some of his best games of the year lately and Marcus Sorensen has been playing phenomenally since returning from injury (including potting four goals in his last four games). Pavelski has been very solid despite playing with an illness and potentially could have a breakout style game if he’s feeling fully healthy.

An improved Martin Jones

Martin Jones has recently strung together a few very solid outings for the Sharks. Although he only posted a .895 save percentage against a dynamic Blues team, he posted an exceptional .949 and .933 against Montreal and Chicago, respectively. While the Sharks are undoubtedly focused primarily on just coming out of St. Paul with two points, it’s critical they get a good performance from Jones for another reason as well: his confidence. With the Stanley Cup Playoffs looming, it’s imperative Jones is playing his best hockey down the stretch, particularly since he has such a reputation for being able to elevate his game in the post-season.

Bold Prediction: The Sharks continue to roll, and win their fifth straight over Minnesota 4-2.