Programming note: Sharks-Senators coverage starts today at 4 p.m. with Sharks Pregame Live on Comcast SportsNet California.
OTTAWA – It’s the biggest game of the year so far for the Senators, who will attempt to climb back into playoff position thanks to an incredible second half surge when they host the Sharks on Monday night at Canadian Tire Center.
For the Sharks, it will have to be the same. Their playoff chances are nearly zilch after losing two of their first three on their current seven-game road trip, but there remains a faint flicker of hope.
“I don’t think there’s any really worry in this locker room about that,” said Joe Pavelski, when asked about needing to match what will assuredly be a fired up Senators team. “It’s about finding that way to win. Over the last two or three weeks we’ve played a harder game and competitive game. It’s been a fun way to play, for the most part. But, we’ve got to find ways to win.”
Todd McLellan said: “Right now we have two teams that are on the outside looking in, but their picture is a little brighter than ours. We expect that desperation level to be evident tonight in our play, and certainly in theirs.”
Despite getting blanked by Montreal on Thursday, the Sharks were pleased with their performance. They had a number of chances against the unparalleled Carey Price, and defensively they were tight, too. The Sharks have given up just two goals in their last two games, not including a late empty netter in the 2-0 defeat to the Canadiens.
Antti Niemi will get the call in net against Andrew “The Hamburglar” Hammond, who is, simply, the biggest out-of-nowhere star to emerge in the NHL this season.
Hammond already beat the Sharks once on Feb. 28, making 28 saves in a 4-2 Senators win. He has yet to lose a game in regulation (13-0-1) after he was recalled for good in late January, and is a huge reason Ottawa has won six in a row and is 14-1-1 in its last 16.
“When a team is playing well and a goalie is hot, it’s always difficult,” Logan Couture said. “I guess there’s probably footage of goals that have gone in on him and we can look at that before the game, but we need to worry about our own game, not about them.”
“He's been tremendous,” McLellan said of Hammond. “Every team that goes on this type of run has something to rally around, and whether it's Hammond or even [Senators GM] Bryan Murray's illness and where he's at, the team is really rallying around those things and Hammond has been a big part of it.”
The Sharks will keep their lines the same despite not getting on the board on Thursday. That means Couture, who was the best forward for San Jose against the Canadiens, will stick on the second line with Matt Nieto and Tommy Wingels. Patrick Marleau, scoreless in seven straight with a -4 rating, remains on the third line with Chris Tierney and Tomas Hertl.
Couture, who played his junior hockey in Ottawa, is trending in the right direction according to the head coach. That’s a good sign.
“I like where Logan's game is right now. He's trying to step up and lead and that's done through his play,” McLellan said. “He's got a tenacity to him right now that's I don't know if it's at an all-season high, but it's very high right now. He's stripping pucks from players, he's keeping his nose over it, making people around him better.”
“Obviously last game I had a lot of good looks, and [Nieto] and Tommy, as well,” Couture said. “I thought we’ve played pretty well.”
The Sharks are six points behind Calgary for third place in the Pacific Division and eight points out of the second wild card spot behind Winnipeg. Both of those teams are also in action on Monday.
For the Sharks, though, the scoreboard means nothing if they don’t handle their own business. They’ll need to go on the kind of run Ottawa is on right now to make their 11th straight postseason, and even that may not be enough.
“We're a different team,” McLellan said. “Just because Ottawa did it doesn't mean San Jose can. We've gone on runs before, but we're not looking at it as a big long string of win after win. We're looking at it as tonight's game. That may be a cliché, but that's how we're approaching it.”