SAN JOSE – It’s been more than a calendar year since the Sharks and Penguins last met, but defenseman Justin Braun remembers going up against the best player in the world.
That player, one Sidney Crosby, finished with no points, one shot on goal, and a -5 rating in the Sharks’ 5-3 win on March 6, 2014.
“I remember we played well. I think we did a pretty good job shutting Sid down,” he said.
Braun and partner Marc-Edouard Vlasic should see another healthy dose of the Crosby line against on Monday night, and they’ll probably see plenty of Evgeni Malkin’s line, too. It will be a difficult task, of course, as the Penguins remain a legitimate Stanley Cup contender and have won six of seven overall.
Braun welcomes the challenge.
“As a d-man, you try and shut down the top guys in the league. They’re right there, and it’s always a good challenge,” he said. “We’ve had some good showings against them a couple tough ones, so hopefully tonight we can put it together.”
The good showings Braun is referring to have some at SAP Center, where the Sharks are 10-0-1 in their last 11 games vs. Pittsburgh, which hasn’t won here since 1997. While games played in the late 90’s don’t have much relevance today, that’s still a streak Braun expects the Penguins would like to end as they conclude a four-game road trip.
“We have those barns too, and you know you’re always trying to overcome it, so maybe they’re pushing a little harder,” Braun said. “Maybe they’ve got a little more incentive.”
The Sharks should have plenty of incentive themselves, and they are getting dangerously close to dropping out of the playoff race. They are five points behind Calgary in the Pacific Division, and six behind Winnipeg for the second and final wild card spot.
Although they played a generally solid game against Vancouver on Saturday, they lost 3-2 after jumping out to a 2-0 first period lead.
San Jose will have to go on a run over its final 16 games, but Todd McLellan is predictably preaching that old one-game-at-a-time approach.
"It's getting harder as the remaining size of schedule diminishes because players are human, they're looking at the standings, they figure out how many games are left,” McLellan said. “But, if we look at it as a big chunk of games rather than one at a time, I think we have less chance of success.”
While Crosby and Malkin are the two faces of the Penguins, this season goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been as big of a reason as any that the Penguins are once again a contender. The 30-year-old brings a 30-14-6 record, 2.16 goals-against average and .924 save percentage into tonight’s game.
He also has a league-leading nine shutouts, six of which have been against Western Conference clubs.
The Sharks did manage to have success against the only other Eastern Conference goalie having a better year than Fleury, when they beat Carey Price and the Canadiens one week ago, 4-0.
“Our D were really good that night. They got a lot of pucks to the net quickly,” Joe Pavelski said. “Forwards got across and got sticks on them. Any time you can make that puck change directions, it kind of throws the goalie off a little bit. We were able to get a few by him.”
McLellan said: “When you think Pittsburgh you think dynamic offensive players, one-on-one skill, power play, and they are that – but they haven't given up very much. Because we play in a different conference and we haven't seen them yet this year, the group had to be reminded of that."
San Jose visits Pittsburgh on March 29.
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Antti Niemi will be in net for the Sharks. He’s 3-1-1 career vs. Pittsburgh with a 3.11 GAA and .892 SP.
Matt Irwin will miss his second straight game with an upper body injury, but hopes to return later this week. The Sharks host Nashville on Thursday and Chicago on Saturday.
“It’s frustrating. This is the time of year you want to be playing,” Irwin said. “These games are so important to our group. These are the fun ones.”