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Craig Rivet reborn as Sharks get set to play Predators in playoffs

The weather was still miserable in April, and it usually matched the mood of the Canadiens' fans and media who sometimes seemed personally offended by anything less than perfection. "It's not a good thing," said the veteran defenceman from North Bay, Ont. "It's a very tough place to play.

"That's Montreal for me. It's a city of, 'What can you do for me right now?"'

During his first six weeks with the San Jose Sharks, Rivet has been reintroduced to the simple joys of professional hockey: making friends, enjoying life and winning games.

A late-February trade sent him from the Quebec pressure-cooker to a laid-back Stanley Cup contender, and he hopes he'll have two more months to bask in this moment.

"I went from minus-25-degree weather where I was shovelling three inches of snow off my car every day, to waking up to sunshine and blue skies," Rivet said. "You can really see (how) the atmosphere affects the guys.

"Obviously, I'm just so happy to be in this situation."

Rivet is just one of many Sharks who believe they're ready to take a spot among the league's elite. San Jose is headed into a difficult first-round playoff series against the Nashville Predators with a loaded roster and a wealth of momentum from a strong regular-season finish.

"We certainly feel we couldn't be more ready," Rivet said after practice Monday in preparation for Wednesday's opener. "We've had a fantastic run here at the end of the season.

"We're a confident team. We're a very big, strong physical team. We feel good about where we are."

The Sharks have been building to this post-season since Nov. 30, 2005 - the day they acquired Joe Thornton from the Boston Bruins and began their transformation from a decent team with above-average talent into a top NHL club with ample amounts of size, skill, power and veteran leadership.

With an 11-1-2 finish to the regular season, San Jose ended up with 107 points, the most in franchise history. If the Sharks had forced even half of their eight one-goal regulation losses into overtime, they would have been in contention for the Presidents' Trophy.

In the loaded Western Conference, 51 regular-season victories were only good enough for fifth place - the same spot the Sharks occupied last year. But coach Ron Wilson believes his club hit its stride at exactly the right time for post-season success.

"To have all these teams with well over 100 points right now is incredible," Wilson said. "The last month has been a dress rehearsal, and most guys have passed.

"We plan on being physical all the way through. We have to be. We're most effective when we're playing hard."

Thornton, the NHL's second-leading scorer with 114 points, finished the regular season with 92 assists, joining Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux as the only players in NHL history with back-to-back 90-assist seasons. He finished on a tear with 32 points in the Sharks' last 16 games, and seems eager to tackle the physical post-season defence he'll undoubtedly face.

After struggling with injuries ranging from a broken toe to a beat-up nose incurred during the regular-season finale against Vancouver, Thornton is eager to begin a post-season where he could quiet critics who claim his playoff performances don't live up to his regular-season standards.

"Everybody is pretty much 95 to 100 per cent (healthy), and I feel great," said Thornton, who has 206 points in 140 games since joining the Sharks. "As a team, we just feel confident.

"There's no reason we can't just go after them from the start."

Last season's impressive late-season run after Thornton's arrival was highlighted by a first-round playoff victory over the Predators - but it ended with four straight losses to Edmonton in the second round.

So the Sharks' retooling continued with the arrivals of Mike Grier, Curtis Brown and Mark Bell last summer, followed by the trade acquisitions of forward Bill Guerin and Rivet - two playoff-tested veterans who provide a voice of experience in a locker-room that sometimes lacked it.

Rivet's steady blue-line presence is something that clearly was missing at times in the Sharks' talented, raw crew of defencemen. He had one goal and seven assists in 16 games while logging more than 21 minutes a game.

Rivet's family arrived in San Jose during the weekend - just one more joy of California living.

"I've enjoyed every minute," said Rivet, who will be a free agent after the Sharks' playoff run ends. "I don't know what the plans are with the Sharks, but I think the guys are great, the city is great.

"I think it's a diamond in the rough. It's a place a lot of players don't know about."


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