January 31, 2015 By Paul Gackle

Sharks Strong Vs. Hockey’s Toughest Division

SAN JOSE — By now, the San Jose Sharks success against their interstate rivals is well documented.

The Sharks are 6-1-1 against the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks this year, but their quality play against top-notch opponents extends beyond the Golden State. In 12 games against the Central Division, widely considered the NHL’s most competitive group, the Sharks are 8-3-1 and they’re looking to improve the mark when the Chicago Blackhawks (31-16-2) roll into SAP Center on Saturday.

“It’s just the competition. They make you play a good game,” third-line center James Sheppard said. “It’s just like healthy competition within a team. If you’re fighting for a spot, it’s just going to make you work harder and better.”

The Sharks (26-17-6) are a perfect 5-0 against the Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators, Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche this season. They also beat the Minnesota Wild on Dec.11, the St. Louis Blues on Dec. 20 and grabbed a point against the Wild in an overtime loss on Oct. 30.

But the Sharks also lost a pair of 7-2 games to the Blues without Joe Thornton in the lineup earlier this month and they dropped their lone matchup against the Blackhawks 5-2 in the second game of a back-to-back on Nov. 9.

While the Sharks are enjoying success against the Central this season, they’ve run into trouble when facing the division’s top squad in recent years, losing eight of their last 12 meetings against the two-time Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks. And they’ll have their work cut out for them again on Saturday.

The Blackhawks, who are currently in third place in the Central Division with 64 points, are entering the contest with the league’s best goal differential (+42), the most shots per game (35.2) and the most first period goals (55). In addition, they’ve received the fewest penalty minutes per game (7.6), surrendered the second-fewest goals per game (2.29) and they boast the league’s second-best penalty kill (87.3).

As usual, the Sharks will have their hands full with Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, who skates on a line with Marian Hossa and Brandon Saad, and Patrick Kane, the standout on the team’s second line, which also includes Patrick Sharp and veteran Brad Richards.

Kane is melting the ice right now, collecting five points (3g, 2a) in two games since the All-Star break.

“It’s going to be another big test for our d corps,” defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic said. “Toews is a hard worker, Hossa has a strong stick and Kane’s so crafty, you don’t know where he’s going to be or where he’s going with the puck.”

While the Blackhawks aren’t as big and physical on the forecheck as the Kings and Ducks, they’re just as challenging when they get the puck in deep.

“That’s because of their speed and their smarts,” head coach Todd McLellan said. “I think people mistake a forecheck for heavy hits and that type of stuff. Puck placement, anticipation skills, very good sticks, working into position and speed are all part of forechecking.”

Vlasic said Toews is as strong on the forecheck as any player in the NHL.

“He doesn’t seem like it, but he is,” Vlasic said. “He’s strong on his skates, strong on his stick, very smart. He knows where to forecheck, knows where the puck’s going. He can read plays really well and once he does he’s just strong. You don’t have to hit and run guys, you just have to be stick strong and skate strong. That’s why he score so many goals.”