Thursday, March 3, 2011
Sharks just focused on beating Red Wings
By Pierre LeBrun
Two Western Conference powerhouses clash Thursday night in San Jose when the Sharks host the Red Wings.
But Detroit is not expected to have the NHL's win leader in net.
"I've got [Joey] MacDonald going tonight in net," Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock told ESPN.com Thursday morning. "I can't play [Jimmy] Howard every single night like I did last year going into the playoffs and wear him out. So MacDonald is starting and he got us a win in Buffalo and in Florida. It's his turn tonight."
Antti Niemi has a 2.51 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage in two games against the Wings this season.
The Wings were 2-1 overtime losers Wednesday night in Anaheim, so the fatigue factor is at play, but Detroit and San Jose tend to bring the best out in each other. And Thursday night might just be a precursor to another playoff matchup in April or May -- the Sharks beat the Wings last spring in the second round.
"It could be all that," Sharks head coach Todd McLellan told ESPN.com Thursday morning. "But what it is for us tonight is a chance to win on home ice and we haven't done that enough this year."
San Jose is 16-10-3 at the Shark Tank this season, the 10th-ranked home record in the West.
"The other thing for us is that it's two points," added McLellan. "It doesn't matter who we play right now but it's two points in the standings that are so tight that it just means so much."
San Jose is on fire, having won seven straight, while the Red Wings are 7-2-1 in their past 10 and playing equally well. A nice test for both teams, ranked second (Detroit) and third (San Jose) in the conference.
"They're always a barometer, that's the same every time," said McLellan.
"It's probably real good for us that we're going into San Jose on a back-to-back and we got to dig in," said Babcock.
The two teams met Feb. 22 at Joe Louis Arena, the visiting Sharks prevailing 4-3.
"The last time we played the Sharks, I thought they beat us in the first 10 minutes of the third period where they skated better than we did," said Babcock. "We're going to have to skate here tonight, and with efficiency, and we need our big people to be good."
What a turnaround it's been for San Jose. A six-game losing streak in early January had people seriously questioning the Sharks' ability to make the playoffs, never mind win the Pacific Division, as it appears they might just do once again. But they've gone 16-2-1 since that six-game losing streak, playing like the team that went to the Western Conference finals last spring.
Why the turnaround?
"I've been asked that 100 times and I would say commitment level," said McLellan. "It's as simple as that. We haven't changed a lot systemwise or anything like that. At the beginning of the year, I complained a lot about the players not being engaged and committed. After our six-game losing streak where it got a little bit ugly, everybody decided enough was enough and they started to commit themselves and play the right way in all areas of the rink. It went from there."
The Sharks, like the Red Wings, were also hit by the injury bug earlier this season. The additions of Ben Eager and Kyle Wellwood by GM Doug Wilson when the injuries were at their worst also helped turn the season around, McLellan said.
"These two guys came in and it helped just reset everything. I think the additions were a wake-up call," said the Sharks coach.
And it certainly doesn't hurt that netminder Antti Niemi, after some early-season struggles, is now looking like the goalie who won a Stanley Cup in Chicago last spring.
"I think he feels that way right now," said McLellan. "By the end of the year last year, he found a home and knew he was the starter. And I would say the same is happening right now. He's found a home, got a new contract, and because of his play and Nitty's injury, he's become a full-time starter for us. Probably like a lot of goaltenders, he's more comfortable with that. He knows he's playing, he gets in a rhythm and plays.
"Goaltending has been a big factor in our play as well."