SAN JOSE –- The schedule is about to get a little bit tougher for the San Jose Sharks.
The team will close out it’s homestand against the 21-9-2 St. Louis Blues on Saturday, in what is one of three matchups with the Western Conference contenders over the next three weeks. A pair of games in Anaheim is on the horizon on Dec. 22 and 31, sandwiched around meetings in Los Angeles on Dec. 27 and at home vs. Vancouver on Dec. 30.
Considering the Sharks have won eight of their last nine to move into second place in the Pacific Division after an uneven start, their timing could be much worse. Confidence levels should be at a season-high.
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“It’s always fun to play St. Louis and Anaheim,” Justin Braun said. “St. Louis is a tough game and they have a lot of skill. It’s nice to play against teams like that, that you may see later that you need to beat. It’s a tough, battling night.”
Todd McLellan said: “I think it will be a very good test for us –- Ducks, Blues, Kings -– teams that are ahead of us or right in our ballpark, teams that are perennial playoff teams that have had success. Heavy, strong teams that are going to test us. I think it comes at a really good time. We’ll find out where we’re at. We’ve been able to play some finesse type games and win them, now can we play those grinding type games?”
The Sharks have had success against the NHL’s better clubs, posting a 5-1-1 mark against the top 10 teams in the overall standings, including two important wins over the rival Ducks. A 6-4 triumph over Anaheim on Nov. 29 kicked off their current 7-1-0 run.
“We just seem to put together a little more buy-in as a team against those top teams,” Braun said. “I don’t know if it’s focus or what it is, but we seem to do pretty well against them. Hopefully we keep that going through this next tough stretch.”
Saturday’s opponent, the Blues, had won five straight before losing 6-4 in Los Angeles on Thursday. They’ll likely be hungry to start another winning streak in San Jose, ahead of rematches on Jan. 3 at SAP Center and Jan. 8 at Scottrade Center.
“If we want to wade into the game or waste minutes, it’s not going to end up in our favor,” McLellan said of facing the Blues.
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The Sharks’ success over the last three weeks coincides with some other teams in their division struggling. Arizona and Edmonton have already played themselves out of playoff contention, while the Canucks (0-4-1), Flames (0-6-0) and Kings (2-4-1) are all scuffling.
Still, there isn’t much separation. While the Sharks (18-11-4, 40 points) have a two-point lead on the Canucks, Vancouver has two games in hand. The Kings trail the Sharks by just two points, while Calgary is behind by four.
“They’re going to go on winning streaks and losing streaks. It’s a long year,” Braun said. “You can’t read into it too much. Those are all good teams that have won their fair amount of games. They’re going to bounce back, and we just have to keep rolling.”
McLellan said: “We believe we can play with anybody. We have to continue to prove that we can do that, and set ourselves up so that when push comes to shove, we’re where we want to be.”
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Matt Nieto skated on Friday but will likely be out until after Christmas, according to McLellan.
Tyler Kennedy (left shoulder) also skated for the first time since he was injured on Dec. 6, but is still not close to returning.