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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.

With Eaves injured, Nichushkin will play for Stars in Game 2

Dallas Stars right wing Valeri Nichushkin (43) takes control of the puck in front of St. Louis Blues center Jori Lehtera (12) during the third period of an NHL hockey game Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015, in Dallas. The Stars won 3-0. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
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It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Patrick Eaves won’t be able to play for the Dallas Stars against the St. Louis Blues in their upcoming Game 2.

The last time we saw Eaves, he was leaving the ice by gliding on one foot after being hit by a teammate’s shot. He needed help to the locker room and was seen on crutches according to Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News.

The bad news is that Eaves cannot go. The good news is that the Stars can replace him with a player who boasts considerable offensive skill, as Valeri Nichushkin will take Eaves’ place.

Nichushkin wasn’t very effective in five postseason games so far, failing to score a point and only managed three shots on goal.

Still, if the frenetic pace of Game 1 carries on through this series, Nichushkin could very well make an impact.

Update: the Stars have other options at forward after making recalls:

Sheary’s in for Penguins in Game 2; Kunitz is a game-time decision

Pittsburgh Penguins' Conor Sheary (43) is greeted by teammates Brian Dumoulin (8) and Chris Kunitz (14) after scoring his first NHL goal, in the first period of the Penguins' hockey game against the Boston Bruins, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015, in Pittsburgh. Bruins' Brad Marchand is at lower right. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
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Both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals might look a little different in Game 2 on Saturday after that blistering Game 1.

As the team down 1-0, it’s not too surprising that the Penguins boast the more significant lineup questions, although they lean toward health concerns rather than performance tweaks.

Conor Sheary was able to return during Game 1 after Tom Wilson‘s controversial knee-to-knee hit, and he appears to be in for tonight’s contest as well. Chris Kunitz isn’t quite a guarantee, as he’s currently labeled a game-time decision.

For what it’s worth, Kunitz himself believes he’ll be in. Whether he plays on Saturday or not, it sounds like Kunitz is taking extra safety measures going forward.

The Penguins stayed vague with Marc-Andre Fleury, merely claiming that he’s making “progress.”

Generally speaking, Matt Murray has been playing well for the Penguins. Of course, the scrutiny will rise if Pittsburgh loses Game 2 on Saturday.

The Capitals are also considering a tweak. CSN Mid-Atlantic reports that Barry Trotz is pondering replacing Dmitry Orlov with Taylor Chorney.

“They told me to be prepared as if I’m going to be playing,” Chorney said. “We’ll just see how it goes.”

As you may notice, Chorney isn’t the only one in wait-and-see mode heading into Game 2, which you can watch on NBC.

Hitchcock, Blues know they need to slow down the Stars … but can they?

The puck shot by Dallas Stars left wing Antoine Roussel crosses the goal line as St. Louis Blues goalie Brian Elliott (1) and defenseman Jay Bouwmeester (19) attempt the stop during the second period of Game 1 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Western Conference semifinals, Friday, April 29, 2016, in Dallas. The Stars won 2-1. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP)
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The Dallas Stars only beat the St. Louis Blues by one goal (2-1) in Game 1, but the feeling is that the score was deceptively close.

Blame it on fatigue from that epic series against the Chicago Blackhawks or not; the Blues looked out of rhythm and out of breath against the hard-charging Stars.

At least they’re not in denial about that, though.

“We’re not going to beat anybody giving up 40 shots on goal,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after their Game 1 loss on Friday. “We’re not going to beat anybody giving up the scoring chances we did today.”

Hitchcock added “we’ve got to find the energy to play our game, and we’ve got to find it quickly in the next 48 hours.”

Allowing 40 shots on goal might not be that common for the Blues, yet they leaned heavily on Brian Elliott against the Blackhawks in that series.

Just look at the SOG comparison in that series and in Game 1 vs. Dallas:

Game 1: Blues – 18 SOG, Blackhawks – 35
Game 2: Blues – 31, Blackhawks – 29
Game 3: Blues – 36, Blackhawks – 46
Game 4: Blues – 20, Blackhawks – 42
Game 5: Blues – 46, Blackhawks – 35
Game 6: Blues – 28, Blachawks – 36
Game 7: Blues – 26, Blackhawks – 33

Game 1: Blues – 32, Stars – 42

Such shot comparisons make you wonder if Game 1 provided evidence of a rest advantage or if this might just be the state of affairs for the Blues (at least against two electric offenses).

One area to watch is the transition game. The Stars seemed to tear through the neutral zone while the Blues sometimes struggled to get things going.

“They’re a team that wants to play real fast up the ice and through the neutral zone,” Jay Bouwmeester said, via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Yeah, we didn’t do a very good job of slowing them down. A lot of their chances were off the rush. That’s what you want to take away from them.”

File that under “easier said than done.”

Gather your lucky charms, 2016 NHL Draft Lottery is tonight

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Honestly, it’s tough to blame people for making Edmonton Oilers jokes in regards to the 2016 NHL Draft Lottery.

Really it’s only human nature to drop one-liners about the perennial cellar-dweller that (seemingly) always lands the No. 1 pick.

Will it happen again this time around? We’ll find out soon enough, more precisely sometime around 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

As you can see, the Oilers do not have the best odds to land the top pick … but they’re close:

A reminder: this time around the lottery will determine the top three picks. The NHL discusses that tweak and other changes here:

For the first time, the 2016 NHL Draft Lottery will assign the top three slots in the first round of the NHL Draft – a change from prior years, when the Draft Lottery was used to determine the winner of the first overall selection exclusively.

Want the full lowdown on the 2016 NHL Draft Lottery? PHT has you covered here.