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HOCKEY

Sharks and Coyotes kick off seasons in San Jose

The 2011-12 NHL season will commence for a pair of Pacific Division rivals tonight from HP Pavilion, where the San Jose Sharks will host the Phoenix Coyotes.

The Sharks are again among the favorites to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup at season's end and have made the playoffs in each of the past seven years. They have won the Pacific crown in four straight seasons and recorded over 100 points the previous five years. San Jose also entered the postseason as one of the top two seeds in the West for the fourth straight campaign in 2010-11.

Led by Joe Thornton, the Sharks made some moves this offseason and dealt sniper Dany Heatley to Minnesota for winger Martin Havlat. Havlat will be teammates with top players Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Logan Couture in Silicon Valley, but is expected to miss Saturday's game with a shoulder issue.

Havlat underwent offseason shoulder surgery and could be replaced by Tommy Wingels on the second line.

After a slow start to the 2010-11 campaign, Antti Niemi solidified himself as the club's No. 1 goaltender. Before the season was finished, the former Chicago netminder had landed a four-year, $15.2 million extension from the Sharks.

However, Niemi had a cyst removed from his leg just before training camp and is expected to miss this evening's game. Thomas Greiss will likely get the start in net tonight.

San Jose will play three of its first four games at home before hitting the road for six contests.

The Coyotes are coming off back-to-back postseason appearances after a six- year absence from the event and hope this season gets off to a hot start for head coach Dave Tippett.

Phoenix has won 93 games over the previous two seasons, but its financial woes have moved to the forefront of operations. The club is in such dire financial straits that the NHL has taken over ownership of the team, and the Coyotes felt the crunch this summer when they lost a handful of key contributors to free agency.

The biggest loss seems to be the departure of No. 1 goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, who won 78 games for Phoenix over the past two seasons. With the Coyotes not in a position to splurge on expensive long-term contracts, the Russian netminder signed a nine-year, $51 million contract with Philadelphia instead.

Also lost to free agency was All-Star defenseman Ed Jovanovski, as well as key role players Vernon Fiddler and Eric Belanger. The Coyotes still have stars in right winger Shane Doan and defenseman Keith Yandle, but there are too many questions about depth at every position.

"I think we have a great mix of guys and a great group of guys and we're going to have a lot of fun going forward," Doan said on the team's website. "I think our strength is how important every guy is and how good every guy is ... We expect to win."

Center Daymond Langkow is back for another stint with the Coyotes and played for them from 2001-04. Yandle inked a new five-year contract in the offseason and was second on the team with 59 points. Doan had 60 points and Ray Whitney added 57 last year. Whitney is pursuing 350 career goals for the Coyotes, who will visit the Sharks, Stars and Predators to open the season. Center Martin Hanzal signed a five-year contract extension this week.

Phoenix plans on using Mike Smith and Jason LaBarbera as this year's primary backstops. Smith was signed to a two-year, $4 million contract this summer and figures to have the inside track on the starting job. The 29-year-old Smith spent the last few seasons in Tampa Bay and has started 146 games over 162 career appearances in the NHL.

Last year, Smith went 13-6-1 with a 2.89 goals-against average in 22 games with Tampa Bay. That was before the Lightning struck gold with their trade for Dwayne Roloson, who helped Tampa make a surprising run to the Eastern Conference finals.

Meanwhile, LaBarbera did not fare well in 17 games (15 starts) for Phoenix last year. He was 7-6-3 with a 3.26 GAA and .909 save percentage with the Coyotes.