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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.

Desjardins rejects notion the Canucks are playing a ‘passive’ structure

Anaheim Ducks' Ryan Kesler, left, is checked to the ice by Vancouver Canucks' Erik Gudbranson (44) in front of goalie Ryan Miller as Luca Sbisa, right, of Italy, defends during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, in Vancouver, British Columba. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
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The Vancouver Canucks have played 24 games this season. They’ve opened the scoring just six times.

So in 75 percent of their games they’ve trailed 1-0.

That’s a lot.

In fact, of all 30 teams in the NHL, no team has trailed 1-0 in a higher percentage of its games. Colorado (73%) and Ottawa (71%) are close, but Vancouver leads the way. And that’s not a category any team wants to lead.

So what’s the problem? Why all the slow starts? One theory — beyond the simple explanation that the Canucks just aren’t very good — involves their much-ballyhooed defensive structure. Is it possible it’s too defensive? Too passive? Too much waiting for the other team to make a mistake, and not enough getting after it?

Because in last night’s 3-1 loss to Anaheim, the Canucks didn’t register their first shot until halfway through the first period. The Ducks didn’t open the scoring until the second, but they had their chances. The Canucks had practically none, until they were losing that is.

After the game, head coach Willie Desjardins refused to blame the structure for the slow start.

“There’s nothing passive about our defense,” he said. “I don’t think we moved the puck great. I don’t think we were transitioning it real well. Our team has to be a transition team. We’ve got to turn pucks over, we’ve got to transition, and we’ve got to get to the net.”

The Canucks, to be fair, were missing two of their best defensemen in Alex Edler and Chris Tanev, and that meant bigger minutes for the likes of Luca Sbisa, who was charged with three giveaways on the night.

So Desjardins wasn’t wrong in his assessment. The Canucks did have all sorts of trouble breaking through the Ducks’ forecheck, especially in the first period.

“They took charge of that game. They had segments of the game when they were in our end,” said the coach. “The one thing that will happen if a team’s in your end, they’ll wear you down, so every time you come out you’re changing, and then you’re in a bad cycle.”

For the Canucks, the first period was one long, bad cycle.

Sbisa, for his part, couldn’t say why the Canucks came out of the gates so tentatively, but he did concede it was a “very disappointing” loss.

“I don’t know what it was,” he said. “We didn’t have that jump, that intensity that you need, especially against the Ducks, a big, heavy team. You’ve got to be ready to battle.”

The Canucks better be a lot more ready to battle Saturday when the Toronto Maple Leafs pay a visit to Rogers Arena. The Leafs smoked them, 6-3, in their last meeting on Nov. 5 at Air Canada Centre.

“Our focus is on our effort and it has to be better tomorrow than it was last night,” Desjardins said this morning. “I’m not worried about if we’ll be ready.”

Related: Gudbranson threatened Martin in a ‘fit of rage,’ didn’t really mean what he said

Boudreau: Flames made ‘mountain out of a molehill’ over Gaudreau slash

ST PAUL, MN - OCTOBER 15: Head coach Bruce Boudreau of the Minnesota Wild looks on during the game against Winnipeg Jets on October 15, 2016 at Xcel Energy Center in St Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
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Calgary will face Minnesota tonight, for the first time since losing Johnny Gaudreau to a broken finger in a 1-0 win over the Wild on Nov. 15.

Much has transpired since.

The Flames were pretty upset about all the slashes Gaudreau took that night, and spoke candidly (and often!) about it. That, in turn, led to Bruce Boudreau offering up the following on Friday:

According to Calgary GM Brad Treliving, a third-period slash by Eric Staal was the one that did the damage, breaking Gaudreau’s finger and leading to corrective surgery, which sidelined him for six weeks.

The Slashgate conversation lasted for a while. Treliving acknowledged he later spoke with NHL Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom about the club’s frustration regarding the incident.

“When you look at that game, it wasn’t the first one,” he said, per the Calgary Sun. “This wasn’t a unicorn that popped up in the middle of a period. By our count there were 11 chops on (Gaudreau) in the game.

“Two, three, four, I got it, but maybe at nine we dial it in a bit.”

In related news, the Wild have recalled 6-foot-4, 211-pound tough guy Kurtis Gabriel for tonight’s game, and it looks as though he could be making his season debut.

What has happened to the Dallas Stars?

Pittsburgh Penguins' Patric Hornqvist (72) can't get to a rebound off Dallas Stars goalie Antti Niemi with Julius Honka (6) defending during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene Puskar)
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The Dallas Stars are the worst defensive team in the NHL.

That’s just a fact. The Stars are surrendering 3.40 goals per game, and no team has a higher goals-against than that. Philadelphia’s next at 3.20, followed by Arizona at 3.14. The best is San Jose at 2.08.

Last night, the Stars fell 6-2 in Pittsburgh. With the loss, their record dropped to 9-10-6. They are now one point back of Nashville for the final wild-card spot, and the Predators have three games in hand.

What has happened to last year’s Stars?

Well, it would be easy to point at Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen and blame the goalies for everything. Those two haven’t been great this season, and that’s an understatement. Niemi has a .902 save percentage; Lehtonen’s is .885. For all the good work Jim Nill has done as general manager, he has botched the one position a GM absolutely cannot botch.

But outside of Dallas, far too little attention has been paid to the big changes in another part of the Stars’ lineup. This offseason, Alex Goligoski left for Arizona and Jason Demers signed in Florida. Those two veteran defensemen played the first- and fourth-most minutes for the Stars last season, and a team does not lose a pair of top-four defenseman and just keep going like nothing happened.

The Stars did sign Dan Hamhuis in free agency, but he’s struggled in a new setting. John Klingberg, their top defender, has also had a tough start.

Last night, with Johnny Oduya out injured, the Stars were forced to play the defending Stanley Cup champs with three rookies on defense: Stephen Johns, Esa Lindell, and Julius HonkaThe other three were Klingberg, Hamhuis, and Jamie Oleksiak, the latter of whom has played fewer than 100 NHL games. Patrik Nemeth was a healthy scratch. He’s inexperienced too. 

“We all take pride in here, and that’s just not good enough. It’s frustrating,” said forward Tyler Seguin., per the Stars’ website. “We have to dig deep. We’re not digging deep enough right now. From our best players to everybody, we have to dig deeper, especially in those big moments and find ways to win hockey games.”

Seguin is still producing on offense, with 25 points in 25 games. But he was a minus-2 against the Penguins, and he’s a minus-11 overall. Meanwhile, the Stars’ other top center, Jason Spezza, is a team-worst minus-15; Klingberg is minus-10; captain Jamie Benn is minus-7; and so is Patrick Sharp.

Now, plus-minus can be a misleading stat. On bad teams, good players often have big negatives.

But that’s the thing. It happens on bad teams, and the Stars are not supposed to be a bad team. They are supposed to be Stanley Cup contenders.

So far this season, everything about them says bad team. Bad defensive numbers. Bad goaltending. Bad penalty killing. Bottom third of the league in score-adjusted Corsi, so it’s not bad luck.

Yes, they’ve had injuries. So have lots of teams. The Stars will still have major questions in goal and on the back end when they get healthy.

The big question right now is whether they can recover and still make the playoffs. Because they’re starting to dig a hole, and if it gets much deeper, they’re going to get buried.

Speaking of digging holes, the Stars play the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday.

Two bad teams, going at it.

Bad, until they prove otherwise.

Related: Colorado’s core is under heavy scrutiny, yet again

Colorado’s core is under heavy scrutiny, yet again

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 25: (l-r) Joe Sakic and Alan Hepple of the Colorado Avalanche attend the 2016 NHL Draft on June 25, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Prior to Thursday’s loss to Columbus, Colorado GM Joe Sakic was asked how his core players have performed during an ugly 9-12-1 start to the year — “inconsistent,” he said — and was then asked he had any intention of breaking the core up.

“Not right now, no,” Sakic said, per the Denver Post. “It’s early in the year.

“I have faith in them, but to me, the start is not a core thing — it’s a team thing.”

Not long after Sakic said that, the Avs lost their fourth straight game, putting them on 19 points — tied with Arizona for the fewest in the NHL.

And then, in his first real bit of message-sending, head coach Jared Bednar took the core to task.

“I’m going to say this,” Bednar said in his postgame media availability. “Tonight, I thought our supporting cast did a real good job up front. I didn’t love some of our top guys tonight. Not that they didn’t work hard, but I didn’t love their game as a whole.”

The controversy surrounding Colorado’s core guys dates back to the Patrick Roy era. After missing the playoffs for a second straight year — which he called “unacceptable” — Roy unloaded on his top players in an April radio interview, saying “the core needs to show more leadership.”

“It was like this when I played for Montreal, it was like this when I played for the Avs,” Roy continued. “The core are the ones that have to carry the team. They’re the ones where, when you lose a game, it has to hurt from the inside. You should want more.”

At this point, it’s probably prudent to identify exactly who comprises the Avs’ core. The Post says it’s “generally considered to be six players, now all tied up to long-term contracts.” Six of the longest-term contracts on Colorado’s books belong to Nathan MacKinnon (signed through 2023), Erik Johnson (2023), Gabriel Landeskog (2021), Tyson Barrie (2020), Matt Duchene (2019) and Semyon Varlamov (2019).

Carl Soderberg, signed through 2020, could be seen as the potential seventh member.

Roy clearly wanted to move on from at least some of these guys, and the fact Sakic didn’t was a major reason why Roy abruptly resigned in August. But it wasn’t that Sakic just keep the core intact — he actually strengthened his commitment to it by giving Barrie a four-year extension this summer, at a time when many figured the puck-moving blueliner would be dealt.

In light of that, it’s not really surprising that Sakic came out yesterday and publicly defended his core guys.

He’s sticking to his guns.

For now, anyway.