The San Jose Sharks come out of the Christmas break having to play a tough Pacific Division rival in the Phoenix Coyotes Friday, Dec. 27. Look for the pictured players to score in the first contest to take place in the desert during the 2013-14 NHL season.
Both teams are currently in the Stanley Cup playoff picture. The Sharks are in third place in the Pacific Division, two spots and three games ahead of the Coyotes who sit in the last wild card spot for the Western Conference.
At the 2013-14 NHL season's quarter-pole (21 games), Phoenix was 14-4-3. Since then the team has dropped 10 of 15 (four overtime losses), including four of its last five (1-2-2). It could be that the previously outlined personnel disadvantages to San Jose are finally catching up to the "Desert Dogs."
No one really knows what direction San Jose is headed. After starting the season 10-1-2 came a five-game losing streak. That was followed by winning nine of 10, but that climb to the top of the Pacific Division was squandered immediately in losing six of eight (one in a shootout).
There must be more than two shootout wins against teams that were actually better for most of both games to determine if the Sharks are out of that slide. Both wins were without Tomas Hertl, who is unlikely to return until after the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. It would be foolish for them to let him represent his country before getting back on the ice for the team paying him.
That would place his return at right about the same time as that of Raffi Torres, giving the team a boost for a Stanley Cup playoff run. The important thing is to be one of the top-five teams in the Western Conference when it happens.
Can the team adjust to Hertl's absence? Even in two overtime games since his injury, six goals is adequate and getting just two against Kari Lehtonen is no reason for shame. The new first line of Joe Thornton centering Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski has been dominant, but the team has been left with only two lines that are a threat to score.
Moreover, the anchor of the other line is ice cold offensively: Logan Couture is scoreless for six straight and has just two assists over his last 10. Thankfully, San Jose can always count on his defensive commitment, and he still makes the second line a threat with Tommy Wingels and Patrick Marleau.
The Coyotes took a bigger hit when captain Shane Doan went down to Rocky Mountain Fever. They will also be missing Zbynek Michalek, while the Sharks are only missing the same two additional players (Adam Burish and Raffi Torres) they have been without all season.
Phoenix has survival for the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs at stake. In the demanding Western Conference, the Dallas Stars are three points behind with the same number of games played while the Minnesota Wild are tied in points but have played three more games.
Meanwhile, San Jose is fighting to host a series. A win could mean second place in the Pacific Division and positioning for home-ice advantage in the first round. This is more important to this team than most, given its dominance at home over the last two-plus seasons.
Unfortunately, the Sharks are not at home. The Coyotes are a much better team on their ice, where they score almost one more goal per game (3.53 vs. 2.57).