Sharks at Coyotes Preview: Business in the front, tank in the back

The Sharks are going back to college.

The San Jose Sharks (12-21-8, seventh Pacific) make the first visit to Mullett Arena, where the team will face the Arizona Coyotes (13-21-5, seventh Central). These two teams last played each other on Dec. 13. San Jose squeaked out a 3-2 victory, thanks to goals from Tomas Hertl, Nick Bonino and Nico Sturm, while James Reimer stopped 20 of 22 shots to hold onto a lead in the third period.

Arizona is coming off a 4-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday night to kick off a three-game homestand. The Desert Dogs got on the board first, but proceeded to give up four straight goals on the way to a fifth straight loss. Barret Hayton opened scoring and Karel Vejmelka made 24 saves on 27 shots, but the ‘Yotes couldn’t slow down Sidney Crosby, who assisted on both of Jake Guentzel’s goals.

The Sharks hung around with arguably the best team in the NHL, the Boston Bruins, on Saturday night. Special teams provided to be the difference, as Boston scored on the power play and shut down San Jose’s stumbling skater-advantage. While goals from Logan Couture and Mario Ferraro helped crawl toward a possible comeback, David Pastrnak proved to be too much, notching back-to-back goals to put the game away 4-2.

Since the last time these two teams saw each other, both have seen sustainable losing streaks. The Coyotes are currently on a five-game skid after beating the Toronto Maple Leafs for the fourth straight time and the Sharks have two wins in the last 10 games. Both teams are setting up for a prime opportunity in the upcoming draft by piling up the losses. A win for Arizona would push the team ahead points, with two games in hand.

On the injury front, Coyotes forward Liam O’Brien is week-to-week with an upper-body injury and rookie Matias Maccelli is out six weeks with a lower-body injury sustained right before Christmas. Maccelli had scored 22 points in 30 games prior to his injury. Sharks defender Radim Simek was placed on injured reserve on Friday after taking a hit to the head against the Dallas Stars. Nikolai Knyzhov continues his return from off-season Achilles surgery and has now been cleared for contact at practice.

Struggling special teams

While, on paper, San Jose’s penalty kill looks solid at 84 percent on the season, the foundation has slowly been crumbling. In the 26 games from Oct. 6 to Nov. 30, the penalty kill was 91.5 percent effective, the best in the NHL. Since Dec. 1, that mark has fallen to 72.9 percent, 24th in the league during that span.

The biggest problem? James Reimer has been the team’s best penalty killer this season and missed the first half of December.

With Reimer missing the first half of the month due to an injury and slowly rounding back into form, the penalty kill has suffered. Reimer at his best cleans up mistakes and makes San Jose’s penalty kill look better than it actually is. They can’t afford for him to be less.

Arizona’s power play sits right behind San Jose at 20.3 percent. The Sharks are going to need to tighten up special teams before a massive East Coast swing to end the month and the ‘Yotes should provide a good chance to do so.

Is Kevin Labanc good again?

One of the many players who has flourished under head coach David Quinn’s system is Kevin Labanc. After missing out most of last season with a shoulder injury, Labanc has found his form this year. He ranks fifth on the team in goals (9) and sixth in points (23). Playing with Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier will make anyone’s life easier, but Labanc has also provided defense to the line, allowing Timo Time to be more frequent.

Labanc has been doing most of his best work at even-strength. Labanc earned a reputation early in his career as a power play specialist, but the winger has officially shed that label — 20 of his 23 points came at even-strength this season.

The trade deadline is fast approaching, and it will be interesting to see if people start calling about the 27-year-old forward, as he still has one year left on his four-year, $18.9 million deal. But his value certainly has increased with Quinn behind the bench.

New arena, who dis?

It’s the first visit of the season to Mullett Arena and Tempe should provide a lively atmosphere. The 5,000-seat arena has earned a surprising reputation in its first season. The Coyotes have a 7-4-2 record at Mullett, compared to the Sharks who are currently 4-11-6 at the Tank. There might be a real home ice advantage for a team that has been lacking one for a while.

Arizona has been a team that scores more goals as the third period than in the first period. If the ‘Yotes can get an early one and get Mullett rocking, the game could be over as quickly as it starts.

The Desert Dogs have been wandering through Arizona trying to find at home, but for now they can nestle into Mullett while awaiting the future.

Bold Prediction: Kevin Labanc scores, but the power of Mullett is simply too much. 3-2, ‘Yotes.