SAN JOSE –- Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic will return to the lineup after a brief one-game absence as the surprising Nashville Predators visit SAP Center on Saturday night.
It’s a good time for Vlasic to get back in, as the Sharks will likely have to match Nashville’s play in its own end. The Predators allow just 1.93 goals-per game, best in the NHL, while playing in front of Vezina Trophy frontrunner Pekka Rinne (19-5-1, 1.78 goals-against average, .935 save percentage).
“They have one of the best goalies in the league and one of the best teams right now,” said Vlasic, who was hurt in the first period of a game with Edmonton on Tuesday. “They don’t give up much but they score a lot. We’ll have to be very good, even better than we were last game.”
The Sharks managed to squeak past Minnesota on Thursday, 2-1, for their sixth win in the past seven games including five in a row on home ice. The defense, minus Vlasic, allowed just 19 shots on goalie Alex Stalock, which was the Wild’s lowest shot total to date.
What did Todd McLellan learn about his team while it was without its best defenseman?
“To be honest, we learned that we want him back,” McLellan said with a chuckle. “That’s not a shot at the rest of them. Marc-Edouard is just that solid, he means that much to our team. His presence out there, the way he carries himself in the locker room, his ability to play in all situations. He’s essential. But, the fact that we could pinch hit without him is a real positive.”
Patrick Marleau said: "[Vlasic] plays big minutes, plays against other teams' top lines, so that's huge for us."
The Predators (19-7-2, 40 points) have won seven of their last nine games under new head coach Peter Laviolette, and are just one point behind the surging Chicago Blackhawks for the Central Division lead. It’s been quite a turnaround from last season when they finished sixth in the division, missing the playoffs.
The Sharks indicated they know the kind of challenge they are in for, as they open a three-game season series that continues on Jan. 6 in the Music City.
“They’re playing well, they’re winning games, and they’re not giving up a whole lot,” Joe Pavelski said. “It will be important for us to get to the net and create those second chances. [Rinne] handles the puck well, he stops it for the most part, and you’ve got to get that traffic in front of him and get the rebound.”
Along with Rinne and the incomparable Shea Weber anchoring the defense, Nashville is getting offense from rookie Filip Forsberg (12 goals, 29 points) and newcomer Mike Ribeiro (8 goals, 25 points).
“They have a couple more offensive weapons that they’ve added over the summer that have played extremely well, so that’s maybe a little bit different,” McLellan said.
San Jose also has an opportunity to jump ahead of Calgary into third place in the Pacific Division standings, as both the Sharks and Flames have 36 points after 31 games. The top three teams in each division are guaranteed playoff berths.
Pavelski said: “As we slowly keep climbing, we’ve got to understand there’s been a lot of hard work that’s been put into it to get back to this level. Now we’ve got to continue to push and hopefully get to that point.”
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Antti Niemi will return to the net for the Sharks, after it was Stalock who played the previous three games. Niemi suffered an undisclosed injury at the morning skate on Tuesday.
In his last four starts, Niemi is 4-0-0 with a 2.75 GAA and .910 SP.
The Sharks forward lines look the same as they were in their win over the Wild, while Mirco Mueller will likely come out of the lineup to make way for Vlasic.