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Canadiens at Sharks Preview: Paint me like one of your French goals

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Let’s celebrate the triumphant return of Antti Niemi together.

Dec 2, 2018; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Montreal Canadiens center Jesperi Kotkaniemi (15) plays the puck against San Jose Sharks during the third period at Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Jean-Yves Ahern Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

In the third game of a four-game home stand, the San Jose Sharks (39-19-8, 2nd Pacific) host the stumbling Montreal Canadiens (36-24-7, 4th Atlantic) at SAP Center tonight. We in San Jose have been counting on the Habs, Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets to keep the Pittsburgh Penguins out of the playoffs, and so far they’re doing a lousy job of it. Montreal sits tied with both Pittsburgh and Carolina at 79 points, with Columbus outside looking in at 77. The Canadiens’ position there is far from secure; of the four teams fighting for those three spots, only Montreal has played 67 games, the rest having only played 66. What’s more, Montreal’s ROW count of 34 would not be enough to get them in over anyone except for Pittsburgh if it came to it.

Suffice it to say, San Jose’s visitors should be hungry tonight, as they no doubt well know how badly they need to leave the Bay Area with two points. The Sharks’ situation, while less dire, seems no less pressing, as they sit three points behind the Calgary Flames for first place in the Pacific Division: a position well coveted for the benefit it confers of avoiding the Vegas Golden Knights and their stupid pre-game celebrations and their stupid fun and their stupid lovable goaltender and their stupid sexy jerseys.

The Knights, while far from the inexplicable William-Karlsson-rabbit’s-foot-fueled heights of 2017-18, seem by most metrics to be Actually Good this season, and whoever matches up with them in the first round this year will have their hands full. The most Sharks thing to do, of course, would be to win the Pacific and watch the Arizona Coyotes go on an absolute tear, relegating Vegas to the wild card, anyway. C’est la vie.

Most recently, the Canadiens did their good deed for the week: trouncing the Los Angeles Kings. Tuesday night, the bleu, blanc, et rouge strolled into Staples Center and stymied the Kings’ storied offense en route to a 3-1 win. Jordan Weal, the Habs’ lone acquisition from the trade deadline a few weeks ago, scored for the Habs, joining Shea Weber and his two points in making bad trades look good for one beautiful, but fleeting, winter’s night.

Los Angeles now has a 1-7-4 record in their last 12 games. That has nothing to do with tonight’s game, but I thought it would make you happy.

The Sharks’ 5-2 win over the visiting Chicago Blackhawks on Monday marks the first time San Jose has won two games in a row since wins over the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks on Feb. 9 and Feb. 11. After taking a well deserved nap during the first 40 minutes of play, the Sharks woke up in the third period, largely on the strength of their fourth line. Between a five-point night from the trio of Melker Karlsson, Micheal Haley and Barclay Goodrow, and San Jose’s third pair’s shut down of game-breaker Patrick Kane, what could have been a frustratingly lackluster performance turned into a display of the home squad’s depth.

Key to the Sharks’ recent successes, such as they are, has been production from deeper down the lineup than we’ve come to expect. In addition to Karlsson’s two goals on Monday, Marcus Sorensen scored his third in two games, and newcomer Gustav Nyquist has excelled at driving play, leading the team in score- and venue-adjusting shot attempt share at 5-on-5 since his arrival at the deadline. While dealing with the absences of Evander Kane and Erik Karlsson, the Sharks will need those kinds of contributions down the stretch and into the ‘yoffs.

The Habs have recorded an even .500 in their last ten games, going 5-5-0, a pace that is not likely to be good enough to cling to a postseason berth in the crowded East. They’ll be hungry tonight, and aside from Weber and his howitzer on the back end, there is plenty to fear from les attaquants. Particularly hot as of late, Brendan Gallagher scored in his fourth straight game on Tuesday in LA, bringing him up to seven goals in his last seven games, and up-and-coming blue-liner Victor Mete recorded two assists that night for his first multi-point NHL game.

Further, very sweet young child Jesperi Kotkaniemi was scratched on Tuesday (head coach Claude Julien expressed concerns about the 18-year-old’s fatigue level), but has had a remarkable season for a 16-year-old, posting 32 points in 66 games played. If the 11-year-old can continue to build on that production in the years to come, general manager Marc Bergevin may be vindicated in his decision to draft the center third overall at the 2018 NHL Entry Draft just days after his seventh birthday.

The last time these two teams met was the start of something special. The Sharks staggered into la belle province on Dec. 2 having lost four straight of a five game road trip. After a much-publicized closed door series of meetings, the boys in blue beat l’équipe locale 3-1, and went on to record a 10-2-2 record through the rest of the month. A win tonight sending the Sharks on a similar trajectory would make the Western Conference crown a fait accompli.

The Sharks will be hard pressed to keep the desperate Habs and breakout star Max Domi at bay tonight, especially lacking in key contributors as the home squad is, but the importance of catching the Flames atop the West cannot be overstated. Fleeting though the Canadiens’ hopes may be, it is still up to San Jose to ensure that they are well and truly doused.

What is going on with the EKs?

After Kane and Karlsson missed the last two games, head coach Pete DeBoer intimated that the latter, at least, was unlikely to return until the end of the current stretch of home games. While Kane described his status for tonight’s contest as “progressing,” it is vital that the Sharks continue to bank points without their even-strength time on ice leader and breakout goal scorer.

While it would be nice to have Kane back and scoring sooner rather than later, it is becoming more apparent with each passing day that Karlsson’s absence may do more good than harm. After apparently re-injuring a nagging groin injury on Feb. 26 in Boston, Karlsson has now missed 12 of the Sharks’ last 17 games. San Jose’s record of 9-3-0, including a six-game winning streak, during those dark 12, should sustain hope that the good guys’ depth can overcome the Swede’s absence.

Paying the iron Price?

After winning the Hart, Vezina, Jennings, Art Ross, Nobel Peace Prize and Saskatoon’s Most Eligible Bachelor in 2015, goaltender Carey Price has had a series of up and down seasons, primarily due to a series of injuries. After being limited to just 12 games in 2015-16, Price suited up for 62 in 2016-17, and was one again waylaid, only starting 46 last season.

This year, Price is back to his old tricks, and his 0.917 save percentage is well above the league average of 0.909. When Price is on his game, he is still among the world’s best at his position and the Sharks will have to get creative to solve him. Lateral puck movement, timely screens, well-timed curses from local mystics, seriously, anything at all.

How many records can Joe Thornton break tonight?

While it is safe to assume Thornton is unlikely to play four games tonight to match his next target, Jarome Iginla, on the all-time games played list, the big man still has quite a lot to look forward to over the next couple of games. Two points would tie Thornton with Stan Mikita at 14th in all-time points, and, while unlikely, eight assists would catch Steve Yzerman for eighth. Every game he plays is another kick right to history’s pants and we’re savoring each minute.

Bold Prediction: The Sharks swarm the poor Habs, but miss Karlsson on the back end, skating to an 8-5 wallop. Thornton, of course, assists on every Sharks goal, tying Yzerman on the all-time list and surpassing him in all of our hearts.

The Sharks are right back in action Saturday afternoon, hosting the blue-hot St. Louis Blues at 1 p.m. PST. The Canadiens waste no time, heading southward tomorrow to take on the Anaheim Ducks at 7 p.m. PST.