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McKeon: Sharks Back In Hunt As Kings Stumble

Well, well. It looks as if we’ve got a three-team race for the Pacific Division title after all.

The Kings, who enjoyed a double-digit points lead during the holidays, suddenly are being pressured by their California rivals in Anaheim and San Jose. The Ducks are two points behind the Kings (both teams were idle Friday) and the Sharks were three back with a game in hand heading into Friday’s game at Carolina.

Since beating Dallas on Jan. 19 to improve to 29-13-3, the sputtering Kings have gone 4-7-1. All-Star goalieJonathan Quick got dinged, forwardMarian Gaboriksuffered an injury, and Los Angeles continues to try to find the right mix on its blue line. The Kings will try to avoid a fourth straight loss when their seven-game trip concludes in Nashville on Saturday.

The Ducks have long since put their 1-7-2 start behind them, thanks to patience (they didn’t fire coach Bruce Boudreau) and trust in their veterans (Corey Perry andRyan Getzlaf have come around), and by making a couple in-season tweaks to the lineup when other moves failed — they went with David Perron and Ryan Garbutt when Carl Hagelin and Jiri Sekac didn’t work out.

Anaheim capped a 5-1-1 trip with a fourth straight win Thursday. The Ducks are on a 13-2-1 run and will play 13 of their final 25 games at home.

Then there’s the strange case of the Sharks, who were a sub-.500 team (18-18-2) and on the playoff bubble Jan. 7 before going 13-2-3 to give themselves a shot at the division crown.

How to explain San Jose’s resurgence?

Couture’s return: Out for nearly two months with leg injuries, Logan Couture has stabilized the Sharks’ forward lines. There may be no team as deep as San Jose when it goes with Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Couture in the middle of its top three lines. San Jose was 17-5-4 through Thursday with Couture in the lineup.

Thornton’s resurgence: Joe Thornton had four goals and 12 assists after 29 games, numbers that suggested age was starting to catch up with the 36-year-old. But he produced eight goals and 27 assists (35 points) in his next 27 — failing to produce a point in only two of those outings. Thornton has had a points streak of at least seven games 14 times with San Jose, an ongoing team record. He’s the only Shark in double-figures.

DeBoer’s touch: New coach Peter DeBoer has a subtle way of impacting games. His decision Thursday to briefly pair Couture with top-liners Thornton and Joe Pavelskiproduced the game-tying goal midway through the third on what turned out to be San Jose’s only shot of the period. DeBoer continues to push the right buttons, whether it’s in-game tinkering, the handling of goaltenders, pairings on defense or simply knowing when to push or when to pull back on his roster.

And what does this all mean going forward? It would be no surprise to see all three teams add, rather than subtract, before the Feb. 29 trade deadline. Injuries are going to have an effect on the race and the schedule will be interesting to dissect.

The Ducks and Kings meet three more times in their Freeway Series whereas the Sharks have only one game left against either: March 28 at SAP Center against Los Angeles.

San Jose has a very busy March — 16 games over 29 days from March 3-31 — but it faces a number of teams outside the playoff picture. Incredibly, the Sharks have yet to play division opponent Vancouver, but that will change in a hurry. San Jose and Vancouver play five times from Feb. 28 to March 29, including three times in the span of seven nights.

In addition to facing a sinking Vancouver team that will probably be a seller at the deadline, the Sharks have three left against Arizona and a combined three against Pacific also-rans Edmonton and Calgary. San Jose is home for 11 of those 16 in March and never has to travel farther east than Edmonton.

As the Kings try to rediscover their game and get healthy, they’ll be at home for 15 of their final 24 after Saturday. And while the Ducks appear to be rolling, don’t overlook their final three games — on the road at Los Angeles, Denver and a nasty April 10 makeup in Washington a day after everyone else concludes their regular season and teams are otherwise resting for the start of postseason play by midweek.

Wild times: Seeing the Wild score a franchise-record 15 goals in three road wins in a span of four nights after a coaching change would certainly suggest that the team had tuned out deposed bench boss Mike Yeo and couldn’t wait for the fresh message provided by John Torchetti, who was promoted from the minors. The Wild scored only 23 goals in their 13 games in January.

Ho-hum: Chalk it up too many outdoor games in recent seasons, but did you know the Wild host the Blackhawks (fourth outdoor game) at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Sunday and the Avalanche entertain the Red Wings at Coors Field the following Saturday?

Bad Hab-its: Does anyone really buy into the rumor that the Canadiens would entertain a trade for All-Star defensemanP.K. Subban? There is no way Montreal would part with that kind of rare talent on the blue line, to say nothing about the marketability of Subban, who is one of the most outgoing and interesting personalities in the game.

Here’s what’s going to happen in Montreal. Respected coach Michel Therrien will be let go and GMMarc Bergevin — assuming he keeps his job — will try to resuscitate an apparently toxic locker room.

Briefly: The eight teams competing in the World Cup of Hockey 2016 will announce their initial rosters of at least 16 players March 2. … Blackhawks rookie Artemi Panarin secured a few more votes as the Calder Trophy favorite with a hat trick during a national telecast from the big stage of Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. … Speaking of Blackhawks scorers, Panarin’s linematePatrick Kane is on pace for 112 points (he has 83 points in 61 games). Last season, the Stars’Jamie Benn led the league with 87 points.

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