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By JEFF BARTL
(AP) — Now that teams in opposite conferences are guaranteed two meetings per season, the San Jose Sharks may not mind seeing more of the Pittsburgh Penguins than they have in recent years.
San Jose seeks a seventh straight victory as it continues a four-game road trip Thursday night against a Pittsburgh team that won’t have Evgeni Malkin as it looks for a fifth consecutive win.
The Sharks have faced the Penguins only 17 times over the last 15 years, going 14-1-1 with one tie in those contests. They’re 8-0-1 in the series since Pittsburgh’s 4-1 victory Nov. 23, 2002, winning the most recent meeting 4-3 in a shootout Nov. 3, 2011.
The league’s divisional realignment brought an agreement that Eastern and Western Conference teams will play on each other’s home ice each season, meaning the Sharks and Penguins will get to see more of each other.
San Jose (19-3-5) enters the latest matchup on quite a roll after beating Toronto 4-2 on Tuesday. Joe Thornton scored and Dan Boyle had two assists for the Sharks, who overcame a sloppy first 10 minutes to earn another victory.
They’ve scored at least four goals four times during their streak.
“It was actually embarrassing for a little while how we were playing,” coach Todd McLellan said. “At least we got our game back.”
Boyle and Joe Pavelski earned an assist on Thornton’s first-period goal, which came on a 5-on-3 advantage. San Jose went 2 for 22 on the power play in its previous six contests.
“It’s always nice winning your last home game before (a road trip),” Pavelski said. “Definitely didn’t have our ‘A’ game (Tuesday), but guys did a good job battling.”
The Sharks are 9-2-3 away from home and tied for the fewest regulation road defeats in the league, though they’ll now face a Penguins team that has won four straight at home.
Pittsburgh (19-9-1) has the most points in the East after finishing a perfect three-game road trip by beating the New York Islanders 3-2 in overtime Tuesday. Sidney Crosby scored the tying goal with 12 minutes left in the third, then weaved through multiple defenders to pot the winner unassisted.
“It was a highlight-reel goal and we¹ll see it again I’m sure,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “The work ethic, backcheck battle, wins the puck, it didn’t look like good odds at that point in time. He cut through the defense and that puck found a way.”
Crosby’s two goals were one more than he had over his previous five games, though his 38 points (15 goals, 23 assists) lead the league by one over Malkin (seven goals, league-best 30 assists).
Malkin won’t be able to catch his teammate against the Sharks. Pittsburgh announced early Thursday that Malkin was out with a lower-body injury and is considered day to day.
The Penguins went 15-2-0 last season without Malkin in the lineup.
Crosby and James Neal scored with the man advantage Tuesday as the Penguins went 2 for 5 on the power play. They’ve converted 11 of 25 such situations over the team’s 6-1-1 stretch and lead the NHL with a 26.0 percent success rate.
“The last couple games we’ve played some good hockey,” winger Pascal Dupuis said. “We’re not giving the opponent too much.”
Marc-Andre Fleury has stopped 42 of 44 shots while winning his last two starts, and he should be in net again for this contest. He’s 1-2-2 with a 2.84 goals-against average in five career starts against San Jose.
Antti Niemi has a 1.95 GAA while starting each contest during the Sharks’ winning streak.
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