Sharks face season’s toughest test against Blackhawks

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The San Jose Sharks have delighted fans with a fast start, winning seven straight to open the season before dropping a skills competition shootout decision to Nashville and a 2-1 squeaker to Anaheim. But outside of a convincing 4-1 win against Vancouver, the Sharks have yet to perform at a high level against the West’s top-tier teams.

Of San Jose’s seven wins, five have come against teams that failed to qualify for the postseason in 2012. Tonight, the Sharks will face the only team remaining that has gained a point in each of its contests – The Chicago Blackhawks.

While the Sharks boast a better goal differential than Chicago, the Blackhawks have faced a far higher quality of competition since opening the season with a decisive win over the defending Stanley Cup Champions. What makes Chicago’s 7-0-2 record even more impressive is that seven of its nine games have been played on the road, while San Jose has enjoyed home cooking for six of nine.

If the Sharks truly hope to be considered an upper echelon team, they’ll need to turn in as convincing a performance against this very good Chicago team as they did against the Canucks last weekend. Here are the keys to a San Jose victory:

Special teams

If the Sharks perfect penalty kill against Anaheim on Monday night gave them a chance to win the game, it was the flaccid power play that lost it for them. The Sharks failed to convert on six tries with the man advantage, which cost them at least a point against their division rivals. Since starting the season with power play goals in each of its first five games, San Jose has failed to register a power play goal in four straight. Not surprisingly, the Sharks didn’t win a single one of those four games in regulation. This team’s power play is its engine.

Conversely, the Sharks will need to shut down Chicago’s vaunted power play at the other end of the ice. San Jose’s perfect penalty kill has been a bright spot since stepping up big time against Vancouver last Sunday, and that trend will need to continue tonight if the Sharks hope to send the Blackhawks home without a point for the first time this season.

Scoring depth

Of the 14 forwards that have suited up for the Sharks this season, only five have registered goals. Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski have been kept off the scoreboard the past two games, which turned out to be San Jose’s first two losses of the season. In comparison, the Blackhawks have gotten goals from nine of 14 forwards. If the Sharks want to be considered an elite team and a legitimate contender when playoff time rolls around, they’ll need production from the third and fourth lines that matches the contributions Chicago counts on from its bottom six forwards.

Ryane Clowe

The only Sharks forward in the top-six without a goal, Ryane Clowe simply needs to get going. His frustration has been apparent since San Jose’s 4-1 grudge match against Vancouver, but for all his physicality and bluster, Clowe is still sporting a goose egg on the score sheet. Against an elite team and a recent playoff rival, Clowe needs to be the most effective version of himself – a big, physical, involved forward who can punish opponents on the ice and the scoreboard with equal aplomb. 

Goaltending

After a brutal 2011-12 campaign, Antti Niemi has been a consistent bright spot for the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks haven’t yet failed to register a point with their starter in net, and Niemi posted a 1.00 GAA and .958 save percentage in the singular shootout loss he suffered. Against his old squad, Niemi has posted a 5-2-1 lifetime record, including a 34-save shutout last season. He’ll need to be at the top of his game tonight against former mates Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and Jonathan Toews, who have combined for 16 goals this season. 

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