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San Jose Sharks enter Olympic break hosting Columbus Blue Jackets

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The San Jose Sharks have one more game left before the break for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. They will host the Columbus Blue Jackets Friday, February 7.

The pictured comparisons examine available personnel for both teams at forward, blue line, goalie and coaching staff.

Columbus currently is the eighth-best Eastern Conference team and third-best in the Metropolitan Division by the only sensible measure (point percentage) for a league where 25 of the 30 teams are over .500 (average .564). That narrowly projects them in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers, who have one more point but have played one more game.

Meanwhile, San Jose is seven games better so far in the 2013-14 NHL season. In the much-more difficult Western Conference, that amounts to just the fifth-best record. However, it is good for second in the Pacific Division and home-ice advantage in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Even after the Los Angeles Kings beat the Blue Jackets Thursday, the Sharks have more than a five-game cushion on their Pacific Division rivals. Both teams will have 23 games after the break, meaning the last game either will play will be this one against a team coming off an overtime loss down the coast the night before.

If San Jose is victorious, Los Angeles will need to make up six games in 23. Assuming neither team moves away from the other in the Pacific Division standings (up or down, respectively), home-ice advantage that is so critical between those teams would go to Northern California.

Still, the Sharks can already plan on being busy for the start of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs and be pretty certain they will spend more time at home than on the road until May. That is completely different from battling to qualify for the postseason, and the Blue Jackets should have more urgency.

More importantly, they are healthier. With Matt Nieto being added to the walking wounded, San Jose had to recall John McCarthy to field 12 forwards. That means when they send him back down, they will have to expose him again on waivers. (He did clear them before being sent down February 1.)

Having so many checking forwards and even NHL reserves playing major minutes has sapped the Sharks of scoring. They have not scored more than two goals in regulation in any of their last eight games, but have managed to go 4-4-0.

Meanwhile, Columbus had a three-game losing streak in the back half of an otherwise other-worldly 15-game run (11-1-0 in the other 12) leading up to the Olympic break that has seen a 53-35 scoring edge established. Before Thursday, the last time this team failed to score two goals in regulation was December 27.

With the 2013 Vezina Trophy winner back in net, that is more than enough scoring to earn a 2014 Stanley Cup playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. Maybe that and the wear from playing Los Angeles the night before leads to having a little less fight.

San Jose has the best home point percentage (.804) in the Western Conference and was tied for the best in the league during the lockout-condensed 2013 NHL season (.813). Columbus is 13-12-3 on the road.

The defensive commitment of the Sharks during the scoring drought is enough to hold even the potent Blue Jackets to two. The offensive desperation of a team that has eight goals in eight games should help the hosts match that number so they can win in the shootout.

Forwards
Forwards Christian Petersen, Getty Images

Forwards

With Marion Gaborik out for the Columbus Blue Jackets, there is no doubt the San Jose Sharks have the three best forwards in this game: Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau. After that, the scales tip quickly toward the road team.

San Jose really has only Brent Burns (no goals, five assists in the last 15 games) behind them as a legitimate scoring threat. Columbus could finish the 2013-14 NHL season with eight forwards that have 40 points and is not filling out its fourth line with players that belong in the AHL.

This one is close, but a slight edge goes to the Blue Jackets.

Blue line
Blue line Joel Auerbach, Getty Images

Blue line

The San Jose Sharks are without Jason Demers, who has probably been their fourth-best player on the blue line so far in the 2013-14 NHL season. However, they still have one of the best shot-blocking units in the game, and a respectable 23 goals and 76 assists have been scored by the six remaining healthy players.

The Columbus Blue Jackets have James Wisniewski, Jack Johnson and Fedor Tyutin atop their blue line to compare to Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Dan Boyle and Justin Braun. Ryan Murray and Nikita Nikitin are at least as good as Matt Irwin and Brad Stuart.

Believe it or not, that makes Scott Hannan the difference between the blue lines. He is better than David Savard or anyone else Columbus would put on the ice.

That makes it a small enough advantage that the skaters for the teams are essentially a toss-up.

Goalie
Goalie Bruce Bennett, Getty Images

Goalie

The goalie advantage might depend on who is in net for the San Jose Sharks. Alex Stalock has been exceptional outside of his game against the Calgary Flames, while Antti Niemi has been shaky outside of his game against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Nevertheless, Niemi is likely to be back in net for the last game before the Olympic break. If that is true, the 2013 Vezina Trophy finalist loses in the comparison for save percentage, goals against average and recent play with Sergei Bobrovsky.

However, the 2013 Vezina Trophy winner was in net Thursday. If he plays Friday, he will not be at his best. If not, Curtis McElhinney is not as good as either goalie for the Sharks, giving them a clear advantage in this matchup either way.

Coaching
Coaching Christian Petersen, Getty Images

Coaching

The credentials of the San Jose Sharks are lengthy. Their head coach and an assistant earned Stanley Cups as assistants in 2008. Their associate coach is looking for his 10th Stanley Cup between playing, scouting and coaching—including one as head coach.

Todd Richards was once an assistant to Todd McLellan in San Jose. He has been successful enough to be a legitimate head coach, but still lacks his former mentor's resume. No one on his Columbus Blue Jackets staff has the resumes of any of their counterparts. This is not to say they are not competent, but this advantage is the clearest of the four examined.

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