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.

Caps’ Vrana hoping to earn spot with Ovechkin, Kuznetsov

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It looks like the Washington Capitals are going to give Jakub Vrana the opportunity of a lifetime.

Washington has given the young winger a chance to earn a spot on the right side of the top line with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin.

On Wednesday night, they got to put the chemistry to the test, as Vrana and the Caps played the Canadiens in Montreal.

Vrana finished the game with a power play goal (an innocent shot that went off Canadiens defenseman Brandon Davidson and in the net). Kuznetsov and Ovechkin registered the assists on the goal and the Caps won 4-2.

“We played fast today,” Vrana said, per the Washington Post. “We had some passes today, some chances. It’s always a good sign when you have chances. … You’re going to be confident when you play with guys like this. You’re just going to be confident on the ice with the puck. Just play fast and build some chemistry there.”

The 21-year-old got his first taste of real NHL action last season, but the production simply wasn’t there (three goals and three assists in 21 games). But the 13th overall pick in the 2014 draft did put up solid numbers in the AHL, as he had 36 points in 49 games last year and 34 points in 36 games with the Hershey Bears two years ago.

“He gets to space,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “He gets on the puck because he moves his legs and his speed is noticeable. Kuzy can get him the puck, and getting down ice, he can put some pressure to create a forecheck, too. He worked hard today, and I think we keep putting him with top players, because we think he’s going to be a top player.”

WATCH LIVE: Canucks vs. Kings from Shanghai, China

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The Vancouver Canucks and L.A. Kings will make history on Thursday.

The two teams will face each other in an exhibition series in China, marking the first time NHL teams will play preseason games in that country. The two-game set gets underway with Thursday’s contest from the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai.

Set your alarms, wake up early (especially if you’re on the west coast!), put on a pot of coffee and catch the game on NBCSN (7:30 a.m. ET) or online with the live stream.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

Here are some links to check out for today’s game:

NHL hopes to make inroads in China with exhibition games

It was a little on the foggy side for Canucks practice in Shanghai

Canucks-Kings exhibition series in China highlights preseason schedule

NHL preseason games in China are ‘the biggest deal’ for local fans

NHL looks to China to ‘expand the sport’

 

Video: Flames goalie makes incredible behind-the-back glove save

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A save of the year candidate in September? It’s possible.

Jon Gillies of the Calgary Flames made an incredible stop during Wednesday’s exhibition game against the Vancouver Canucks.

The camera angle from directly above the net is the best, as it clearly shows how Gillies appeared to bump the puck back toward the goal line, then suddenly reach back with a no-look, behind-the-back glove save to prevent a Canucks goal and stop play.

That is one incredible save.

Drouin shows ‘commitment’ to community with donation to Montreal hospital

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Jonathan Drouin has yet to play a regular season game for his new team, the Montreal Canadiens.

But after getting traded to the Habs in the summer, Drouin has already made a sizable contribution in the community, donating $500,000 over 10 years to the University of Montreal Hospital Centre and planning to help in the fundraising activities to raise an additional $5 million, according to The Canadian Press.

From Sportsnet:

“I think all of that had some impact on his overall decision making,” Drouin’s agent Allan Walsh told Sportsnet. “One day when he’s retired and 50 years old, that hospital [which will begin serving patients for the first time this coming October] will still be here and he’ll have played a role in its development. That means something to him.

“But I think more than anything else he wants to help people. If he can help people—the hospital is going to be the largest hospital in North America and there’s a tremendous need for it in the city—and if he can use the fact that he plays for the Montreal Canadiens to do that, I wish more players felt that kind of responsibility to their communities.”

As noted in the Sportsnet piece above, Drouin is following in the footsteps of Saku Koivu and P.K. Subban, who made generous donations in the community during their time in Montreal.

The Habs acquired Drouin from the Lightning in June, sending prospect defenseman Mikhail Sergachev to Tampa Bay. They then signed the 22-year-old forward — who was born in nearby Ste-Agathe, Que. — to a six-year, $33 million contract.

It won’t be long before the pressure falls on Drouin’s on-ice ability, especially playing as a potential No. 1 center in Montreal and essentially being a hometown player for the Habs. But without even playing a meaningful game for his new team, he’s already giving back to an important cause in the city.

“And when you look at that, if you make $6 million and you give $50,000 a year, it’s not a big deal and you get tax receipts,” he said, per the Montreal Gazette. “But it’s a commitment, and being involved in the community and doing something for your community I think it’s something that you have to do.”