Sharks and Kings faceoff in huge Pacific Division battle

Every night down the stretch is going to have a huge game in the Western Conference and tonight is no different. After fans in the West get the Ducks/Preds matchup between the 7th and 8th seeded teams; the dessert will be the Sharks and Kings from Staples.

Both teams have been on fire over the last two months. The Kings are 17-4-5 over their last 26 games, only to be bested by the Sharks 21-4-3 run over their last 28 games. The Sharks have been turning it on ever since they managed to sleepwalk through October and November. In fact, the Sharks are riding a four game winning streak after severely damaging the Flames’ dying playoff hopes in a 6-3 win last night. The entire team has found their scoring touch as they’ve averaged 5 goals per game over the recent winning streak—including Torrey Mitchell and Patrick Marleau who each have 4 goals on their own.

The stretch run looks good for the men in teal as well. San Jose’s final eight games are all against Pacific Division rivals; which is a good thing for Sharks fans. They are 9-3-4 this season against the division most people will tell you has been the strongest this year. Time and time again the Sharks have shown that they have a thicker skin this year and can play best when their best is needed. Whether it’s playing their best hockey down the stretch of a tight playoff race or giving their best effort against the teams in their own division, the Sharks have seen the best results when they needed them the most.

Kings head coach Terry Murray was even talking about the Sharks ability to put it all together over the last three months:

“You get great awareness of what it is that you need to do every night in order to make a big push. It’s just a process. You see it so many times with young hockey clubs. You take a step backward, you take two ahead, and you just go through it. They seem to be coming to their time right now, where it is their opportunity to put it all together. They’ve got a lot of experience, world-class players, a top line, a good back end, and they’re just making the big push and they know how to do it right now.”

Speaking of the Kings, this will be their first game without scoring winger Justin Williams who is out for the rest of the regular season with a dislocated shoulder. In his place, Oscar Moller will play in his first game since his four game stint with the Kings in mid-December. For those who thought he might be eased into the lineup, he’ll be on the first line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Penner—on a team struggling to score in the middle of a playoff race. No pressure, kid.

The Kings hot streak has been a little different than the Sharks. They’re 1-1-1 on their current five game homestand and have only scored 2 goals in a week. They are a pedestrian 4-3-1 in their 8 games at Staples Center; sandwiching a 4-game winning streak on their recent road trip through Western Conference contenders. They’re winning and earning points—but they’ve certainly been playing their best hockey outside of Southern California over the last few months. It’s an ironic trend considering they started with the best home record in the NHL.

Going into the night’s games, the Kings need the game much more than the Sharks do. Los Angeles is tied with the Blackhawks and Predators for 5th place with 88 points; only a point ahead of Anaheim; more importantly, only 2 points ahead of 9th place Dallas. The Sharks are trying to solidify the Pacific Division crown and home-ice advantage; Los Angeles is just trying to get in.

The good news for the Kings is that scrappy rookie Kyle Clifford will return to the lineup after getting KO’d a week ago by Ryan Reaves of the St. Louis Blues. His return will help offset the Williams injury as the Kings will look for scoring by committee to replace offense that will be sitting in the press box. More likely, Jonathan Quick will be asked to hold the opposition down while the Kings try to get by with the bare minimum.

Then again, that’s not the easiest task when facing the Sharks who have 20 goals in their last 4 games and have scored 7 of their last 19 on the power play.

Plenty of opportunity on revamped Blackhawks defense

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For almost a decade, Niklas Hjalmarsson was a mainstay on the Blackhawks’ back end, quietly providing some of the most effective defense in the league.

But with Hjalmarsson in Arizona now, traded to the Coyotes for the younger-though-less-proven Connor Murphy, it remains to be seen how Chicago’s blue line will roll out next season.

In addition to Hjalmarsson, the ‘Hawks also bid adieu to Brian Campbell, Johnny Oduya, and Trevor van Riemsdyk this offseason.

Add up all the good-byes, and that’s a lot of minutes to replace.

“We’re going to see when we’re putting the pairs together, whether we’re going to reunite [Duncan Keith] and [Brent Seabrook] or look for some balance,” head coach Joel Quenneville said, per CSN Chicago. “There are a lot of options. We’ll look forward to that and sorting it out.”

The way it looks right now, the top four will be comprised of Keith, Seabrook, Murphy, and Michal Kempny. That’s two left shots — Keith and Kempny — and two righties — Seabrook and Murphy.

Read more: After major changes, Bowman thinks Blackhawks are in ‘good spot’

The bottom pairing, though, is anyone’s guess. Newly signed Czech defenseman Jan Rutta is in the mix. But so too are Jordan Oesterle, Gustav Forsling, Ville Pokka, Erik Gustafsson, Viktor Svedberg, and possibly even Luc Snuggerud.

Once training camp starts, it’ll be up to those young players to prove themselves.

“Just the amount of opportunity that is in front of me just drives me even more,” said Oesterle, whom the ‘Hawks signed July 1. “I want to be here and force their hand to keep me here.”

Veteran Michal Rozsival is also under contract for next season. However, he turns 39 in September, and with all that youth champing at the bit, the Blackhawks will be hoping they won’t need him much, if at all.

Chicago’s defense in 2016-17, ranked by total time on ice

Sheary’s agent — who’s also Dumoulin’s agent — hoping to avoid arbitration

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Conor Sheary‘s agent is hopeful that an arbitration hearing won’t be needed with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

And that same agent has reason to be optimistic, since he’s also the agent for Brian Dumoulin, who settled at the last minute today.

“Each (case) is so different,” Andrew Gross told the Post-Gazette this morning. “Ultimately, though, team and player would like to avoid going in that room. It’s not a pleasant experience.”

Sheary’s hearing isn’t scheduled until Aug. 4. The 25-year-old forward is coming off a 53-point regular season. In his young NHL career, he’s already won two Stanley Cups.

That said, the Penguins can’t afford to break the bank on an extension. After all, a big reason for their success has been having players like Sheary on affordable deals — a necessity with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang taking up so much cap space.

Sheary wasn’t all that productive in the 2017 playoffs either, scoring just two goals with five assists in 22 games, while finishing a team-worst minus-5 for the postseason.

“We’re prepared to go to arbitration,” Pens GM Jim Rutherford said last week.

Of course, Rutherford was also speaking about Dumoulin, and the two sides were able to reach an agreement on him.

You can probably expect a similar outcome with Sheary.

Just don’t bet the house on it.

Preds avoid arbitration with Austin Watson

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Another narrowly avoided arbitration to pass along.

The Nashville Predators have signed forward Austin Watson to a three-year, $3.3 million contract that will pay him $1 million next season, $1.1 million in 2018-19 and $1.2 million in 2019-20.

Watson’s hearing was scheduled for today.

From the press release:

Watson, 25 (1/13/92), set career highs in goals (5), assists (7), points (12), penalty minutes (99) and games played (77) during the 2016-17 season as he established himself as an integral member of the Nashville roster. The 6-foot-4, 204-pound winger then added four goals and nine points in 22 postseason contests as the Predators advanced to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Watson also appeared in 57 games for the Predators during the 2015-16 season, recording three goals and 10 points.

The Pittsburgh Penguins also avoided an arbitration hearing today by signing defenseman Brian Dumoulin to a six-year contract.

Spooner seeking $3.85 million in arbitration

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Ryan Spooner‘s arbitration hearing with the Boston Bruins is scheduled for Wednesday. And if it goes ahead, it could be a rather contentious one.

According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, Spooner is seeking $3.85 million on a one-year deal, while the B’s are thinking almost half that at $2 million.

Spooner, a 25-year-old forward, will certainly be able to sell his offensive statistics. He had 49 points in 2015-16, then 39 points last season.

“Ryan’s a talented player,” said GM Don Sweeney, per CSNNE.com. “He’s had a lot of success. Our power play is better when he plays as well as he’s capable of playing, and he can really be a good complement to our group.”

But the knock on Spooner has always been his defensive play. The past two seasons, he’s a combined minus-17. Back in May, it was reported that the B’s were entertaining trade offers for him.

Spooner’s last contract paid him $1.9 million over two years.