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Are the San Jose Sharks this season's favourite to capture the Stanley Cup?

But if there's one team that may be up to the challenge, it's the one that plays five and a half hours up the highway.

The San Jose Sharks open training camp Thursday, tabbed by many as Cup favourites this season. That's just fine with them.

"Definitely," star centre Joe Thornton told The Canadian Press this week. "And there's no reason why we can't. Everyone is one year more experienced. We felt that we were close two years in a row but I really feel that there's no reason that we can't do it this year."

They were the pick by some entering last spring's playoffs, too. And they were 33.1 seconds away from going up 3-1 in their second-round series with Detroit before the Red Wings tied it, won in overtime, and never looked back en route to six-game victory. A tough playoff pill to swallow.

"I say this with all due respect to the Detroit Red Wings - they're a great organization - I think we beat ourselves instead of them beating us," says Sharks GM Doug Wilson. "We had an opportunity to put them away and we didn't."

The Sharks have been knocking at the door. Only the champion Ducks and the Eastern Conference powerhouse Ottawa Senators have played as many playoff series - seven - over the past three seasons. The Sharks have taken their playoff lumps and now hope they're ready to take it to the next level.

"Historically, you have to go through those lessons I think to really build upon them and utilize them in your favour," said Wilson. "I think we're a team - that when you're looking at the age and experience of it - I think we're coming into a phase that should be some pretty exciting times for this organization."

There's not much that's not to like on this roster. Thornton and Patrick Marleau lead a 1-2 punch at centre that few teams can match around the league. The supporting cast at forward includes Jonathan Cheechoo, Steve Bernier, Milan Michalek, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe and the gritty Mike Grier.

The notable loss this summer was defenceman Scott Hannan, who went to Colorado via free agency, leaving Matt Carle, Christian Ehrhoff, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Craig Rivet and Kyle McLaren as the top five. This is the area it would appear where Wilson may possibly look for a move before the Feb. 26 trade deadline, but the GM will first take a look at what he's got.

"It gives other people an opportunity," he said. "We've got some other players that have been waiting for the opportunity to show what they can do. Doug Murray and Rob Davison are not kids. They've been around here. They're 27 years of age."

In goal, Evgeni Nabokov no longer has to look over his shoulder, his status as the No. 1 man firmly cemented with the off-season trade of Vesa Toskala to Toronto.

"Nabber deserves to be No. 1," said Wilson. "He is, to me, one of the top five goalies in this league. It's a decision we're very comfortable with. He's just coming into his prime."

Dimitri Patzold, 24, and Thomas Greiss, 21, will battle it out in camp for the backup job. Those two shared the load with San Jose's AHL affiliate in Worcester last season.

"I feel very comfortable with our goaltending for a long time," said Wilson.

For the Sharks, challenging for the Cup is not a one-year window.

"I think the sign of great organizations and great companies are long-term success," said Wilson. "And we think with the age of our team, the experience of this team, we think we can put ourselves in a position to have a chance to win every year for a quite a while."

The core of the team will be around for a while. Thornton joined Marleau and Michalek in signing extensions this summer while the likes of Cheechoo and Nabokov are also signed long-term.

"We all love playing with each other, we have a great group of guys," said Thornton. "There's no doubt that everyone that signed here wanted to be stay here long-term and really believed that we could be contenders for the next four or five years."


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