Sharks aim to boost playoff chances in clash with Leafs

( - The San Jose Sharks will try to boost their wounded playoff chances when they visit the lowly Toronto Maple Leafs for Thursday's battle at Air Canada Centre.

The Sharks enter tonight six points behind Winnipeg for the last wild card spot in the Western Conference and also sit six points in back of Los Angeles for the third automatic berth from the Pacific Division. San Jose has just 12 games left in the regular season to prove itself playoff worthy, but it is looking increasingly likely that the club will miss the postseason for the first time since 2003.

Todd McLellan's team has not done its postseason quest any favors of late, losing two straight and three of its last five games. The Sharks have been outscored by an 11-4 margin over their last two trips to the ice and are coming off Tuesday's 5-2 loss in Winnipeg.

San Jose began a seven-game road trip on Tuesday and fell to 17-12-3 as the guest this season.

The Sharks outshot the Jets by a 40-22 margin, but never recovered after falling behind 3-0 in the opening period. Joe Pavelski was the lone bright spot for the San Jose offense, recording his 33rd and 34th goals of the season. Pavelski had just one goal over his previous 12 games.

Alex Stalock stopped 12-of-14 shots in relief of Antti Niemi, who was chased from the game after allowing three goals on eight shots in the first period.

"It was a big game for us, but there's plenty of hockey left," said Stalock.

Tuesday's test was the only one of San Jose's road trip against a Western Conference opponent. San Jose will continue its swing Saturday in Montreal.

The Sharks have posted victories in four straight and eight of their last nine games against the Maple Leafs. They have won four in a row in Toronto.

The Leafs have lost three straight and six of their last seven games and the club was officially eliminated from the playoff race in the East after Boston earned a point Tuesday in a shootout loss against Buffalo. It marked the earliest date a Toronto team was knocked out of postseason contention since the 1972-73 campaign when the Leafs were eliminated on March 11.

Toronto hasn't played since dropping a 4-1 road decision to the Edmonton Oilers on Monday. The Oilers are one of three teams in the NHL with fewer points than the Maple Leafs.

Jonathan Bernier was pulled after allowing three goals on four shots. James Reimer finished with 27 saves in relief for Toronto, which went winless on a three-game trip through western Canada.

"This is probably an all-time low in hockey right now. It's a tough go," a frustrated Phil Kessel said.

In addition to the loss, Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri was suspended four games for an illegal check to the head of Edmonton's Matt Fraser. The league handed the suspension out on Wednesday.

Kadri was assessed a minor penalty for an illegal check to the head in the third period. He was suspended because he is considered a repeat offender. The 24-year-old forward was suspended by his team for three games earlier this month for violating team rules.

Beginning with tonight, the Leafs are playing five of their next six games at home, where they are 19-14-1 this season.