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NHL Preview from The Sports Network



Thursday, March 31st (All times eastern)

Dallas Stars (38-26-11) at San Jose Sharks (44-23-9), 10:30 p.m.

(Sports Network) - Two fresh faces have certainly had an impact for the Sharks this season. Their performances in San Jose's last game have the club on the verge of a playoff spot.

Rookie Logan Couture and netminder Antti Niemi will try to lead the Sharks to a seventh straight playoff appearance this evening when they host the rival Dallas Stars at HP Pavilion.

San Jose is tops in the Pacific Division with 97 points, two more than Phoenix with six games to play and two games in hand over the Coyotes. The Sharks, who are three points ahead of third-place Los Angeles in the division, are also 10 points up on the ninth-place Stars and Flames in the West, meaning they can clinch a postseason spot with a regulation win tonight.

The Sharks already own the tiebreaker over the Flames with more non-shootout wins and would also hold that distinction over the Stars with a victory in this meeting.

"I think you always want to clinch, no question," Sharks forward Dany Heatley said on his team's website. "The position we're in now, we want more, we want to keep playing well and get home ice for as much as we can in the playoffs. That's got to be a goal of ours. We want to win all six games and if we do that, it's a pretty good indication we're playing well going into the playoffs."

In their first year with the club, Couture and Niemi have had San Jose playing well for most of the season and both helped the Sharks in their bid for a fourth straight division title last time out. Couture scored twice to reach 30 goals and added an assist, while Niemi made 26 saves in his 31st start in a row to lead San Jose over Phoenix, 4-1, on Saturday.

"To get 30 goals is definitely something I never thought was possible but it's been a great year. There are nights when the puck's going to find you and I had a chance for three or four tonight. After that first goal, I knew it was going to be a good night," said Couture, who extended his own rookie franchise record for most goals in a season.

Niemi, meanwhile, won his 31st game of the season and has a 2.46 goals-against average in his first year with the Sharks after backstopping Chicago to a Stanley Cup title last season.

Ryane Clowe had a goal and two assists for the Sharks, who are 5-0-1 in their last six games and are one point back of second-place Detroit in the Western standings with a game in hand.

San Jose, which kicks off a three-game homestand tonight, has won its last three at HP Pavilion and is 4-0-2 in its last six there. The Sharks, though, have lost both of their home games to the Stars this season as well as five of the last seven as the host in this series.

San Jose did best Dallas for just the fourth time in its last 11 overall in this series in the last meeting, notching a 6-3 road victory on March 15. Niemi made 34 saves to improve to 3-2-2 with a 2.79 goals-against average in his career versus the Stars.

That meeting featured a plethora of heavy hits between the rivals, including one open-ice check by the Sharks' Douglas Murray that knocked Stars forward Loui Eriksson out of the game and another by Dallas' Jamie Langenbrunner that drove San Jose's Niclas Wallin into the boards head first.

Heatley, meanwhile, threw an elbow to the head of Dallas' Steve Ott and was hit with a two-game suspension.

The Stars won't have time for revenge tonight as they trail the eighth-place Blackhawks by three points in the standings and will use its game in hand over the club tonight. Dallas is 0-1-1 on a key five-game road trip, losing the opener as Nashville on Saturday before Tuesday's 2-1 shootout setback at Phoenix.

Jamie Benn scored on a power play in the second period to tie the game, giving him nine goals and 16 points in his last 13 games, while Kari Lehtonen made 26 saves in his 16th straight start. Still, Dallas is 0-1-3 in its last four and 1-3-3 in the past seven.

"We deserved a win tonight, but we didn't get it," Stars head coach Marc Crawford said. "I told the guys after the game that you have efforts like that you're going to win 95-to-98 percent of your games. Their goalie was terrific tonight, and he was the difference for them."

Lehtonen is 3-3-1 with a 3.48 GAA in his career versus the Sharks.

03/31 11:00:46 ET


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