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Stars at Sharks Preview: Welcome Home, Joe Pavelski

Tonight, the San Jose Sharks (20-22-4, 6th in Pacific Division) host the Dallas Stars (26-14-4, 2nd in Central Division) as former captain and franchise icon Joe Pavelski makes his return to the building he called home for 13 years. This is the first meeting of the Sharks and Stars this year, though there are two more scheduled; the Sharks will head to Dallas on Pi Day 2020 (March 14), then play host once again as the Stars return to San Jose on April 2.

Last season, the Sharks won one of their three (close) games against the Stars, with each being decided by a single goal. Unfortunately for San Jose, since their last meeting, the teams have trended in opposite directions: the Sharks, a legitimate cup contender last season, have regressed significantly, losing multiple key contributors to free agency while experiencing what appears to be age-related decline in many of their core players.

The Stars, however, look to be picking up right where they left off last season, in comfortable control of a playoff spot while looking like the sort of squad few teams would want to match up with in a seven game series. They come in to tonight’s contest having won six consecutive games on the back of excellent team defense and goaltending, allowing two or fewer goals in every win on their streak. In fact, that’s been the Stars’ bread and butter all year — at 2.34 goals against per game and 105 total goals against on the year (both the fewest in the NHL), they’re an absolute juggernaut defensively.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that their goaltending tandem of Ben Bishop (15-9-3, 2.44 goals against average, .928 save percentage) and Anton Khudobin (11-5-1, 2.13 goals against average, .933 save percentage) is the league’s best, with both of their net-minders ranking in the top five in both save percentage and goals against average. The Sharks, who, with an average of 2.65, rank 26th in the NHL in terms of goals-for game, will have their work cut out for them, particularly without captain and leading point scorer Logan Couture, who continues to be out with an ankle injury. In his stead, they’ll be relying on offensive contributions from players like Evander Kane, Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc — a forward group which we know has the potential to absolutely go off on any given night. For the Sharks to come away with two points, they’ll need tonight to be one of those nights.

Beating Big D (at their own game)

It can’t be said enough: the Dallas Stars are absolutely phenomenal at keeping pucks out of their net. For the Sharks to emerge victorious, they shouldn’t plan to rely on their offense. Needing four (or even three) goals against one of Bishop or Khudobin is an incredibly tall order with the way they’ve been playing lately. San Jose will be much better served if they can keep Dallas in a tight, low-scoring affair, taking what they can get offensively; if they can put the clamps on a Stars offense that ranks 24th in both goals for per game and total goals allowed, a goal or two may be enough to bring home the two points.

Pavelski Payback?

Tonight’s game will undoubtedly be the most emotional of the season for Sharks fans, with beloved former captain and long-time franchise mainstay Joe Pavelski set to make his inaugural return to the arena he played almost 1,000 games in. The energy in the building will be special, and it’s hard to imagine Pavelski, a player nicknamed for his penchant to show up in clutch moments, doesn’t play his best game of the year. With limiting the Stars’ offense being so important in tonight’s game, the Sharks will need to put their appreciation of Pavelski aside, zero-in on their former captain, and ensure he doesn’t have an inch of space to break open a low-scoring game.

New Star in Town

Whether or not he’s officially considered the No. 1 goaltender in San Jose, Aaron Dell has played like it, and should be trusted to continue his excellent stretch of recent play against the Stars. While Dell, like Martin Jones, has struggled this season, his game has gotten significantly better of late, perhaps due in part to the midseason shakeup at goaltending coach. In his last eight games, Dell has actually posted numbers that almost rival those of the Stars netminders, going 4-3-1 with a 2.38 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.

Of course, the small sample size is relevant, and despite the massive statistical improvement, Dell has still posted a relatively unexciting .500 record over that stretch. Tonight, he’ll have an opportunity to further cement himself as the Sharks’ starter, going save for save with some of the league’s best.

Bold Prediction: Pavelski doesn’t cry during what I can only imagine will be a deeply moving tribute video, and the Sharks squeeze out a 2-1 victory.

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