Sharks try to retain Pacific lead as they face Leafs
SHARKS (31-20-7) at MAPLE LEAFS (29-24-7)
TV: TSN, RDSI (HD), CSN-CA (HD)
Last 10: San Jose 3-6-1; Toronto 4-5-1
Season Series: This is the only meeting of the season between the Sharks and Maple Leafs. A four-goal third period led Toronto to a 4-2 victory in San Jose in the most recent matchup on Jan. 11, 2011. Carl Gunnarsson scored the game-winning goal. Patrick Marleau had a pair in defeat.
Big Story: Long road trips haven't been particularly kind to Western Conference teams this month. Chicago lost the first seven of a nine-game swing before rebounding, and now San Jose has dropped four straight and five of a six on its own nine-game journey. The Sharks' hardships combined with the Coyotes' recent surge has allowed Phoenix to draw even in points, though San Jose continues to lead the Pacific Division by virtue of having played two fewer games.
Sharks: All of a sudden Columbus isn't a gimme on an opposing team's schedule, and San Jose found that out in resounding fashion Tuesday night. The Blue Jackets scored four times in the first period, chasing Antti Niemi after the third goal, and never let up en route to handing the Sharks a 6-3 loss. Joe Thornton and Logan Couture scored 26 seconds apart in the middle period and Couture later added a second goal on the power play, but the damage had long since been inflicted.
"Right now we should be a desperate team," coach Todd McLellan said. "That's very concerning."
Maple Leafs: It's a three-way battle currently taking place for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot between Toronto and the second- and third-place teams in the Southeast Division -- which heading into Wednesday night's action were Winnipeg and Washington. The ultimate result for the Maple Leafs on Tuesday -- a 4-3 overtime loss to the visiting Devils -- was disappointing, but the team got a key point in the standings when Phil Kessel scored with 44 seconds left in regulation and Jonas Gustavsson on the bench for a sixth attacker.
"As a group we've got to take it as a real big positive to get that point," captain Dion Phaneuf said. "It's not the way we wanted it to end but to get that point at that point of the game, it's huge.
"It's a big goal by (Kessel) for our team and that's the way we're going to take it. We're going to take the point and move forward."
Who's Hot: Couture has 4 goals in as many games for the Sharks. Over his last 14 games, he has 9 goals and 10 assists. Thornton has 5 goals and 10 assists over his last 11 games. … Kessel has 1 goal and 3 assists during a four-game points streak for the Maple Leafs. Tim Connolly has 2 goals in his last three games.
Injury Report: San Jose forward Dominic Moore left Tuesday's game after blocking a shot in the first period and didn't return. Defenseman Douglas Murray has missed the last three games after taking a puck to the throat against Tampa Bay and suffering a broken Adam's apple. Forward Martin Havlat is on injured reserve recovering from hamstring surgery.
Stat Pack: Couture is 5 goals and the same amount of points away from matching the 32 goals and 56 points he put up last season when he was a Calder Trophy finalist. … Gunnarsson (ankle) was activated from injured reserve for Tuesday's game and logged 22:43 of ice time on the Maple Leafs' blue line.
Puck Drop: San Jose has occupied the third seed in the West for much of the season, but getting passed by Phoenix for the Pacific lead would mean dropping down into a battle for the final few playoff spots.
"We've pretty much hit bottom now and hopefully we can dig our way out of it," Thornton said in the San Jose Mercury News, "because we're definitely in a race now to get into the playoffs."