Douglas Murray checks Anze Kopitar during the Sharks' 4-2 win over the Kings at the HP Pavillion on November 7th, 2011: Thanks to LAKings.com

Douglas Murray checks Anze Kopitar during the Sharks' 4-2 win over the Kings at the HP Pavillion on November 7th, 2011: Thanks to LAKings.com

To be certain, it was a good start to the Darryl Sutter era, but after needing a shootout just to take care of a bottomfeeder, the Kings will likely need to be better in San Jose tonight when they take on the Sharks.

It will be the third meeting between these two Pacific Division rivals this season, as well as their third meeting since they squared off in the playoffs last season. It will be Darryl Sutter’s first trip back to San Jose as part of the Kings, after, of course, he previously served in San Jose as head coach under Dean Lombardi, and in their second game under him, his new team will look to make it a successful trip back to his old stomping ground as well as stay undefeated under their new coach.

However, it’s certainly not going to be easy against the Sharks. As mentioned earlier, this is the third meeting between these two teams this season, and the last one resulted in a 2-0 Kings win at Staples Center back on November 28th, but exactly three weeks earlier, the Sharks defeated the Kings 4-2 in what to this point is their only other meeting in San Jose this season, on November 7th.

The Sharks are in an odd position of only having played 31 games so far this season. That gives them three games in hand on the Kings, and in fact, they have at least two games in hand on every team in the Western Conference. The Sharks boast a record of 18-10-3, and although their 39 points are just the seventh most in the Western Conference, they are ranked third in the West because they are leading a Pacific Division that has been pretty weak this season. The Kings currently sit three points back of the Sharks, and as division games often are, this is a big game. A regulation win by the Kings would pull them within one point of the Sharks, but a regulation loss would drop them to five points back, and don’t forget that the Sharks also have three games in hand.

San Jose has picked it up lately after getting off to what wasn’t a great start to the season by their standards, winning three straight games and outscoring their opponents 15-8 in that span, including a 7-2 romp of the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday. The Sharks also boast an impressive 11-6-1 record at home and have won four straight games at HP Pavillion. The Sharks also give up very few goals at even-strength, explaining why they have one of the better defense rankings in the NHL despite their miserable penalty kill, and combine all that with the Kings’ recent struggles, particularly on the offensive side of things as well as the even-strength scoring that has been miserable for years, and it becomes pretty apparent that the Kings will need to be on their game in this one.

San Jose is a strong team in most areas of the game. They score an average of 2.9 goals per game, which ranks their offense 11th in the NHL, but they should be in tough against the Kings’ seventh-ranked defense, giving up an average of just 2.38 goals against per game. Meanwhile, the Kings’ 30th-ranked offense, averaging just 2.12 goals per game and on an embarrassing franchise record streak of scoring two or fewer regulation/overtime goals in 13 straight games, will be in tough to end that streak against the Sharks’ eighth-ranked defense, giving up an average of just 2.42 goals against per game.

On special teams, the Sharks power-play ranks 10th in the NHL, converting on 19.1% of their opportunities. However, the Kings penalty kill has been fantastic lately, and overall is ranked fifth in the league, killing off 86.9% of their penalties. If the Sharks have a main weakness, it’s their penalty kill, which is tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets for 28th in the NHL, killing off just 75% of their penalties. The Kings power-play has been struggling big-time lately with just one goal in their last eight games, so hopefully they can get back on track by taking care of business against an atrocious San Jose penalty kill.

It’s not surprising that the Sharks are one of the more formidable offensive squads in the league when you consider that they’re led by the likes of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Ryane Clowe. Filling out the Sharks forward group are Michal Handzus, Andrew Desjardins, Benn Ferriero, Jamie McGinn, Frazer McLaren, Torrey Mitchell, Andrew Murray and Brad Winchester. One will be a healthy scratch, while James Sheppard and the underperforming Martin Havlat are on the injured reserve, after Havlat suffered a very odd injury on a line change that will see him miss around six-to-eight weeks. Sheppard missed all of last season with the Minnesota Wild and hasn’t played with his new team yet this season either as he continues to recover from knee surgery stemming from an ATV incident last summer.

On defense, the Sharks are led by the dangerous duo of Dan Boyle and Brent Burns. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Jason Demers, Justin Braun and Colin White make up the remainder of the San Jose blue line, while Douglas Murray and Jim Vandermeer are on the injured reserve.

In goal, it’s expected to be Antti Niemi, but it could also be Thomas Greiss. Niemi is 14-6-3 on the season with a shutout to go along with a 2.37 GAA and a .917 Sv%, while Greiss is 4-4-0 without a shutout to go along with very similar numbers to Niemi, a 2.37 GAA (same as Niemi’s) and a .918 Sv% (.001 better than Niemi’s).

For the Kings, Darryl Sutter said that “This isn’t baseball,” and declined to comment on whether or not he would make any changes to the lineup. These game previews could become more difficult if Sutter is a coach who doesn’t say what lineup changes he’s making before the game on a consistent basis…

If he does not make any changes, the forwards will be Anze Kopitar between Brad Richardson and Dustin Brown, Mike Richards between Simon Gagne and Trevor Lewis, Jarret Stoll between Dustin Penner and Justin Williams, and Colin Fraser between Kyle Clifford and Kevin Westgarth. The healthy scratches would be Trent Hunter and Andrei Loktionov, who didn’t need to be sent down yet to make room for Mike Richards because of the holiday roster freeze that is currently in effect that does not lift until December 27th and allows teams to activate players off of injured reserve without getting rid of someone to make room for them even if the team already has 23 active players on their roster.

On defense, it would be Rob Scuderi with Drew Doughty, Willie Mitchell with Slava Voynov, and Jack Johnson with Matt Greene, leaving Alec Martinez and Davis Drewiske as the healthy scratches.

In goal, Darryl Sutter pulled aside Jonathan Bernier after the game yesterday before he went and celebrated the win with his teammates and told him something. You’d figure he told Bernier he was starting tonight, considering it’s the Kings’ second game in as many nights and they had a flight overnight and Quick would be pretty tired, but Sutter wouldn’t confirm that. For what it’s worth, Bernier was the only goalie on the ice this morning for the Kings’ optional morning skate. That could mean Jonathan Quick is starting and wanted the extra rest while Bernier just wanted to get some work in today, or it could mean that Bernier is starting and wants the extra shots to get ready while Quick takes full advantage of the day off. We’ll find out tonight.

If it is Bernier, it will be his first start since a 2-1 regulation loss to the Stars on December 10th, Terry Murray’s last game before he got fired. Quick has started the last five games, but Bernier got mop up duty in Saturday’s blowout loss in Detroit, as Quick left the ugliness early and Bernier was forced to deal with an elite Red Wings team making fools out of his sloppy Kings team in front of him. Needless to say, it wasn’t good for his stats, but before that, Bernier had given up only two goals in each of his last three starts. However, he’d been a hard-luck loser, losing two of those games and is just 2-4-0 on the season because of the lack of offense that his team provides. If Bernier does start, he’ll be in tough against a talented Sharks team, so hopefully his team helps him out in front of him at both ends of the ice. In fact, hopefully they do that no matter who ends up starting in goal tonight.

Well, the Kings have a chance to head into the holidays with a third straight win and a chance to go 2-0-0 under Darryl Sutter. Will they be able to, and possibly score three or more regulation/overtime goals, or will the Sharks continue their success at home?

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