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Predators at Sharks Preview: Pekka card, any card

The Nashville Predators (40-27-5, 2nd Central) visit the San Jose Sharks (43-20-8) with a similar goal: win a tight dogfight at the top of their division. Sitting one point behind the Winnipeg Jets for the top spot in the Central, the Predators would probably like the number one seed to avoid playing the suddenly hot Dallas Stars or not-as-suddenly-but-still-pretty-suddenly hot St. Louis Blues, the two teams jockeying for the three-spot. Similarly, the Sharks sit one point behind the Calgary Flames atop the Pacific, both teams hoping to avoid a first round series with the Vegas Golden Knights.

Unfortunately for our dear Perds, their last stretch has not helped them make up much ground as, before their 3-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday, Nashville had lost two straight, and five of their last eight. With that win, they’ve reclaimed a rolling .500, holding a clean, if unimpressive, 5-5-0 record in their last ten contests.

Some of Nashville’s fall from the team that won the Presidents’ Trophy just last year (and self-appointed Regular Season Western Conference Champion!) is due to a dearth of injury luck. Of Nashville’s top five leaders in points, two have missed more than 15 games (Filip Forsberg, third with 43 points, missed all of December with an upper body injury, and Victor Arvidsson, fifth with 40 points, missed most of November and December with a broken thumb), and two more have missed at least two (Ryan Johansen, first with 57 points, and Mattias Ekholm, fourth with 42).

Still, they seem to have recovered mostly, as only Dan Hamhuis and Very Important Forward Zac Rinaldo are on their injured reserve list. They’ll have to clean up their game if they want to claim the Central division from the similarly slipping Jets.

Luckily, nothing stops a losing streak like a visit to Los Angeles, and the Predators took advantage, as their 3-1 win over the Kings was their first in three games (including a brutal 3-2 loss to the impressively ineffective Anaheim Ducks). A win over the Sharks tonight could hop them over the Jets, who will play the red hot (sorry) Flames earlier in the evening. The Flames, while dangerous, did play the New York Rangers last night, and only very good teams with cool players and the best bloggers beat the Jets on the back end of a traveling back-to-back.

At the same time, Nashville has very little to fear from behind them, as the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues sit six points back, a gap unlikely to be fully closed at this point in the season.

The Sharks, with Thursday’s 4-2 loss to the visiting Florida Panthers, missed an opportunity to be the first Western Conference team to clinch a playoff berth, and, with Calgary’s win over the Rangers last night, were temporarily (we hope) relegated to second place. The Sharks were playing their third game in four nights on Thursday, and while they still commanded the shot attempt battle with a 63.1 percent share at 5-on-5, a lack of finishing ability and an overabundance of careless penalties allowed the all-but-eliminated Cats to skate home with two points.

In Joe Thornton’s 1555th game, passing Jarome Iginla for sole possession of 13th place in NHL history, the Panthers enjoyed goals from two former Sharks: Jamie McGinn and Mike Hoffman (the hero) so, in a way, San Jose scored four goals and won. Right?

Nashville is not the only team in the building tonight whose season has been troubled by injury, unfortunately. After losing defenseman Radim Simek early in Tuesday’s win over the Jets, the Sharks announced on Wednesday that the young Czech would undergo surgery to repair two torn ligaments in his knee. It’s unlikely that we’ll see Simek again this season, so, still missing Erik Karlsson, the Sharks will have to rely on their defensive depth down the stretch and into the postseason.

In a complicated bit of news, the Sharks, beset by injuries at one of the least convenient times, Evander Kane will reportedly return back to the line up tonight, after he missed time due to a tragic family loss. Both Lukas Radil and Dylan Gambrell were sent down to the AHL’s Barracuda yesterday to make room on the active roster for Kane and, presumably, to see some ice time against the Colorado Eagles this afternoon.

There is a lot to like and learn from the Sharks’ last hosting of this Nashville squad, a thrilling 5-4 win back on November 13. Thornton scored his 400th goal, Karlsson scored his 400th assist and the Sharks recovered from a 3-0 deficit at the first intermission, scoring four unanswered goals en route to the win. That kind of tenacity will go a long way for the rest of the regular season and, if they can keep up the momentum, into the playoffs. While Thursday’s loss snapped a six-game winning streak, it’s time to start a new one.

It’s the second best time to plant a tree, fellas.

Will the Sharks finally solve Pekka Rinne?

Among the Sharks’ historic villains (Dustin Brown, Steve Ott, Kevin Bieksa, any Toronto Maple Leaf, Brian Campbell for some reason, the undead), there is a special place for Pekka Rinne. In 23 career games against San Jose, Rinne holds a 12-7-4 record (okay, not too scary, just over .500) with a 1.92 goals against average (okay, that’s respectable), and a .940 save percentage (aw, beans). His record in San Jose is only marginally worse, 4-5-0, 1.94, and .937, respectively.

All of those are team stats largely influenced by a goaltender, as opposed to individual goalie stats, but the Predators’ stifling defense has not lessened this year: their shot attempts against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 of 54.25 is seventh lowest in the league (San Jose is first at 51.41). Suffice it to say, the Sharks are about to run into yet another hot goaltender in this stretch, like Devan Dubnyk, Jake Allen and Carey Price … how did those go?

What does Joakim Ryan have to do to earn the coaching staff’s trust?

With the aforementioned injury to Radim Simek, it stood to reason that Joakim Ryan was the next wookie whisperer on the list, but head coach Pete DeBoer seemed to have other plans on Thursday night. Ryan’s time on ice of 14:46 was fifth lowest on the team and a full five minutes less than any of the team’s top four. That’s not much less than Simek’s season average of 15:12, but when Ryan skated just one shift during the 11:43 after Frank Vatrano scored Florida’s fourth goal, it was another reminder that he doesn’t seem to have the coaching staff’s confidence in important situations. With Karlsson still out, the Sharks will have to use all the healthy bodies they can get their hands on (phrasing) to avoid overworking heavy minute chompers like Brent Burns and Brenden Dillon.

Can the Sharks’ decimated blue line contain the Preds’ healthy one?

For years, the hallmark of the Nashville Predators has been the scoring from their top four defensemen. Captain Roman Josi, Ekholm, Ryan Ellis and, even in a down year by scoring standards, P.K. Subban pose a one through four on the blueline that is among the league’s best. As of this writing, Josi sits sixth in league scoring, Ekholm at 15th and Ellis at 24th. The Predators are one of only two (the Dallas Stars are the other) teams with three defensemen in their top six in scoring, showing a commitment to net-out team building that has done well for them so far.

Maybe Burns can just outscore all of them.

Bold prediction: Burns does, in fact, outscore all of them. Another 5-4 win, with a 1-3-4 stat line for the big, bearded brute.

The Sharks are back in action at home against the Golden Knights on Monday at 7:30 p.m. Pacific, and the Predators take some time off to head home to host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday at 5 p.m.

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