While the playoff race is just heating up for most NHL clubs, matchups between the San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks have already had the intensity of a postseason series.
The division leaders face off for the fourth and final time in the regular season Saturday when the Sharks visit Vancouver.
The three previous meetings resulted in 3-2 scores with the Canucks (28-15-4) winning twice -- once in overtime. San Jose (26-13-5) took the most recent one in a shootout Jan. 2 in Vancouver.
Including last season's Western Conference finals, Vancouver is still 5-0-2 in its last seven home games against the Sharks.
The Canucks' eight-point lead over Colorado in the Northwest is the largest of the NHL's division leaders, but they'll be looking to avoid losing three straight for the first time since April 19-24 during last season's West quarterfinal series against Chicago.
Following Sunday's 4-2 loss to Anaheim in the opener of a six-game homestand, the Canucks fell 3-2 in a shootout to Los Angeles on Tuesday. Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault indicated his team is having trouble making decisions.
"Right now, a lot of times, the play we're making is not the right play," he said. "We spend more time in our zone, we give the other team momentum, we give the other team scoring chances, and we need to do a better job of that.
"It's not just our defense, but it's our forwards and our D's."
Having Henrik Sedin back on the scoresheet could help the Canucks erase any on-ice apprehension. Sedin, who's among the league leaders with 52 points, will try to avoid being held scoreless in three straight regular-season games for the first time since Feb. 26-March 3.
He has 19 assists and 22 points in his last 14 meetings with the Sharks.
Roberto Luongo has yielded six goals in losing the Canucks' last two games, matching the total allowed over his previous four contests. But he's 6-1-2 with a 1.96 goals-against average versus the Sharks since the start of last season, including Vancouver's five-game victory in the postseason.
The Sharks are beginning a three-game road trip through western Canada prior to the All-Star break after falling 4-1 to Ottawa on Thursday -- just their third regulation loss in 18 contests.
San Jose has a one-point lead and four games in hand over second-place Los Angeles in the Pacific, and is starting to separate itself from Dallas and Phoenix.
"It should be a good test for us before the break," captain Joe Thornton said of playing in Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary in a four-day span.
Thornton has struggled in recent trips to Rogers Arena, posting a goal and three assists in his last seven games there, including postseason play. Patrick Marleau, who has one goal in his last five games overall, comes into this contest on a four-game point streak in Vancouver with three goals and an assist.
Antti Niemi, who made 27 saves in the Sharks' win at Vancouver earlier this month, has alternated wins and losses in four road games since then. Niemi has yielded a combined one goal in wins at Anaheim and Winnipeg, but was beaten for eight in losses at Minnesota and Chicago.
Since joining the Sharks in September 2010, Niemi is 2-4-0 with a 3.31 GAA in six games at Vancouver with three losses coming in postseason play.
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