Game Preview: Avalanche – Sharks

Who: San Jose Sharks (22-8-6)

When: Tonight, 10:30PM EST/8:30PM MDT

Your (unconfirmed) Starting Goalies: COL – Semyon Varlamov (16-8-2), SJ – Antti Niemi (18-6-7)

The Dangermen: The Sharks are down one of their standouts as Tomas Hertl will be out a month with a sprained knee. The Rookie has been a nice surprise this season with 15 goals so far, spending most of his time with Joe Thornton and Brent Burns.

Dec 21, 2013; San Jose, CA, USA; San Jose Sharks congratulate San Jose Sharks goalie Alex Stalock (32) after he blocked all of he Dallas Stars overtime shots at SAP Center at San Jose. Sharks won 3-2 in the overtime shootout. Mandatory Credit: Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

The aforementioned Thornton leads the way with 37 points (on an incredible 32 assists) through 36 games so far. Though he’s getting up there in age, Jumbo Joe is still one of the best playmakers in the league. He’s good for one or two ridiculous passes per game these days.

Joining him near the top of the scoring charts is one again Patrick Marleau. He leads the team with 16 goals and sits just two points behind Thornton. There is speculation that he could be joining Thornton on the top line with Joe Pavelski (14 goals, 32 points) on the right wing.

Oh, and even though he’s getting fifth mention, Logan Couture is pretty good himself, with 10 goals and 30 points so far. He’s the young, future star of the Sharks and is no doubt happy to learn from Thornton and Marleau while getting to be in the background.

The Sharks are a little top-heavy, as only Tommy Wingels is a real threat to score from the third line (nine goals). The point here is that the Sharks score a lot.

The Defenders: The numbers seem to support that the Sharks are a solid defense (10th in goals-against-per-game) but it seems like it’s been several years now where most feel like the Sharks don’t quite have enough on the back end.

Dan Boyle leads the way offensively with six goals and 17 points so far; the power play quarterback of the group. He and Marc-Eduard Vlasic are the real puck-movers of the group and provide the most offensive punch. Jason Demers is right in that group as well.

Boyle and Brad Stuart provide the veteran presence amongst what is actually a pretty young group (three defenders are 26, one is 25). Stuart is also known to lower the boom from time to time and is one of the last to deploy the hip check.

Dec 17, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; San Jose Sharks goalie Antti Niemi (31) catches the puck against the St. Louis Blues during the third period at Scottrade Center. The Sharks defeat the Blues 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

If this group gets going, moving the puck up the ice quickly and efficiently, the Avalanche will find themselves in a ton of trouble.

Puck Stoppers Inc.: Once upon a time, Antti Niemi was overrated and not considered a legit starter in the NHL. Yeah, he’d won a Cup with the Blackhawks, but no one took him seriously. The 30-year-old is following up last year’s stellar campaign (24-12-6, .924 save percentage, 2.16 GAA) with another solid effort. He’s 18-7-6 with a .913 save percentage and a 2.31 GAA.

If there’s anyone who’s going to get credit for the Sharks being in the top half of the league in defense, it’s him.

If, for some reason, it’s not Niemi, you’ll be seeing Alex Stalock. Niemi’s been the workhorse this year, but Stalock has been pretty good in his stead. With a 4-1-0 record, his 2.02 GAA and .936 save percentage show he’s anything but a liability. Whoever the Sharks put in net, they’ll have a chance.

How the Avs match up: Both teams are struggling a bit right now and the Sharks will be down Hertl for the next month. This is fairly typical San Jose behavior these days – they start red-hot and then come back to Earth at some point.

The Avalanche, meanwhile, are coming off a strong performance in Los Angeles where they lost in a shootout; their first time this season doing so. They’re relatively healthy again – only Alex Tanguay and Ryan Wilson are out – so there’s no excuses.

It all comes down to getting on the board early and putting pressure on the defense/goaltending early. Varlamov has been strong of late despite the relative skid. He stopped 37 on Saturday night in a losing effort and has generally seemed to have his confidence back.

Key Matchup: Fast Start vs Niemi

Cower in fear if: Marleau and co. get on the board quickly.

The Sharks defense isn’t having much difficulty breaking the puck out of their zone, creating rushes the other way.

The Avs don’t STAY OUT OF THE DAMN BOX.

Laugh maniacally if: Gabe Landeskog wakes up and remembers he can score goals like a boss.

Varly repeats his strong performance from Saturday night.

Matt Duchene keeps his point streak going.

Silly predictions: Varly vs Niemi: Fight!; Okay, this time Landy joins the double-digit-goal gang with his 10th on the year; Jamie McGinn gets revenge on his former team; The Sharks will have at least three power plays.

Final:  3-2 Avalanche

Ryan is the editor of Mile High Sticking as well as co-owner of The Farm Club. Follow him on Twitter to talk Avs, Sabres, hockey in general, or to let him know what a yutz he is.

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Topics: 2013-14 Season, Antti Niemi, Colorado Avalanche, Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, NHL, Patrick Marleau, San Jose Sharks, Tomas Hertle

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