Programming note: Sharks-Penguins coverage gets underway at 7 p.m. with Sharks Pregame Live on Comcast SportsNet California
SAN JOSE – Special teams could play an even bigger role than it typically does when the Sharks host the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins at SAP Center on Thursday night.
The Penguins enter with the league’s best power play, scoring at 24.9 percent clip. Chris Kunitz is second the NHL with 12 goals on a man advantage, while Sidney Crosby has nine.
Todd McLellan described it as, “very much an attack mentality. They get the puck, and they’re going. They don’t waste any time on it. Two things we need to do is stay out of the penalty box, and the second thing is have our penalty kill at its best.”
The Sharks’ penalty killing has been excellent most of the season, but especially lately, killing off 17 of its last 18 chances against. That’s helped to offset a miserable power play that is now just 2-for-38 in the last 13 games.
“I think we’ve tightened up our PK lately,” Logan Couture said. “We’ve been a lot better on it.”
The Penguins haven’t won in San Jose since 1997, a span of 10 games (0-8-2), but they gave the Sharks a spanking earlier this season on Dec. 5. Despite losing Evgeni Malkin with a minor injury in the morning skate, Pittsburgh took a 4-0 lead in the second period en route to a 5-1 win.
That game marked the start of a stretch for the Sharks in which they won just two games out of eight (2-5-1).
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“They exposed us,” McLellan said. “We weren't very good, especially in the second period, in their building. They're very good when they score first and are able to maintain a lead. So, there's a lot of things we have to improve on, but maybe the most important one is the management of the puck.”
Patrick Marleau said: “I remember we weren’t very good, that’s for sure. It also shows that if you do make mistakes they can make you pay really quick. Looking for a more complete game from us tonight.”
San Jose piled up 45 shots in the loss, the most Pittsburgh has given up at home this season, but McLellan didn’t put much weight in that stat.
“Sometimes when the game gets away on you quickly, the opposition doesn’t play with the same type of intensity or sometimes the same matchups,” he said. “It would be nice to have those same shot totals here at home, but not chasing the game by three or four goals.”
The Sharks will be trying to rebound from Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime loss against Carolina, which had lost five straight in regulation. San Jose also recently dropped a game to the league’s worst team in the Buffalo Sabres.
Pittsburgh, the top team in the East, will provide the biggest challenge yet since the resumption of the season following the Olympics.
“We seem to play better against the top level teams in the league,” the coach said. “Our record against teams that are struggling to get into the playoffs is subpar. We're not very pleased with that, but we seem to rise to the occasion.”
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Antti Niemi will return to the net for San Jose, and it looks like he’ll face Penguins backup Jeff Zatkoff, who is 9-2-1 in his rookie season.
Niemi has played in just one of the four games coming out of the break, and is 3-1-1 with a 3.12 goals-again average and .898 save percentage in five career games vs. Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh will apparently save starter Marc-Andre Fleury for Friday in Anaheim.