Sharks-Coyotes Preview

The Associated Press

The wild race for the Pacific Division title has teams jumping and dropping multiple spots in the Western Conference standings each night.

The San Jose Sharks fell from third place to eighth after their most recent loss, but they can reclaim their spot atop the Pacific with a victory Thursday night over the host Phoenix Coyotes, who hope to get back into playoff position.

San Jose (39-28-10) fell one point behind Dallas for the division lead after losing 3-1 at Anaheim on Wednesday, with the Stars beating Edmonton by the same score earlier in the night.

The Sharks and seventh-place Los Angeles each have 88 points, but the Kings own the tiebreaker. Phoenix (37-27-13) is lurking one point back in ninth.

Those four Pacific teams are competing for what likely will end up being three playoff spots. Captain Joe Thornton said San Jose must have a short memory as it pursues a fifth straight division crown.

"You've just got to win now. That's the only perspective we can think about right now," Thornton said. "We've got five games left, and we have to win them."

The Sharks dropped to 1-5-2 in their last eight road games Wednesday, though they'll be facing a Phoenix team that has gone just 2-3-2 at home this month after falling 4-0 to St. Louis on Sunday.

It marked the first time the Coyotes were shut out on home ice since a 5-0 loss to Vancouver on Nov. 25.

Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said his team is aware of what's on the line in Thursday's matchup, as well as the importance of improving at home. The Coyotes will be playing the second of a four-game homestand.

"It's obviously a huge game," Tippett said. "You watch the scores closely, but ultimately we have to take care of our own business. We've got five games left, and we have to find ways to play well at home and win at home to give ourselves a chance to be a playoff team."

This matchup is the third this month between the teams, with San Jose winning the most recent one 4-3 in a shootout Saturday.

The Sharks opened the season series with a 6-3 victory Oct. 8, but Phoenix responded with three consecutive wins - two via Mike Smith shutouts - prior to Saturday's loss.

"Throw out the first game and other than that they've been very competitive games, and I expect that again," Tippett said. "We're going to have to play a solid game and I'm sure (the Sharks) are thinking the same thing."

Phoenix hopes to get a boost from the return of captain Shane Doan, who had been serving a three-game suspension for elbowing Dallas' Jamie Benn on March 20.

Doan has five points in four games against the Sharks, and Radim Vrbata has two goals and two assists in those same four matchups. Both were out Saturday, but Vrbata also may return after missing the last two games with an undisclosed injury.

Smith's shutouts against the Sharks were both 3-0 wins, with 31 saves Nov. 12 and 42 saves March 10. He's 3-0-1 with a 1.47 goals-against average in his last four starts versus San Jose.

It's unclear if Antti Niemi will start back-to-back nights for the Sharks after stopping 25 of 27 shots Wednesday, or if Thomas Greiss will get the nod.

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