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Sharks still among NHL's elite, but are struggling heading into second half

SAN JOSE, Calif. - Before Joe Thornton left town for last weekend's NHL all-star game, the star centre was asked whether he thought any other San Jose Sharks deserved to join him and goalie Evgeni Nabokov in Atlanta.

"No!" Thornton practically shouted, without even pondering the question. Thornton was quite correct, which illustrates everything that's both good and bad about the Sharks as they return to action Tuesday night with back-to-back games in Edmonton and Calgary.

San Jose is among the league's elite teams at 27-15-2-5, with remarkable team defensive play and Thornton's usual playmaking brilliance in front of a workhorse goalie enjoying a career year. Yet the Sharks' offensive struggles and lacklustre home record have left even some players feeling that the club with the NHL's third-best record is somehow underachieving.

"I think we all realize we're not even close to playing the way we want to," said veteran defenceman Craig Rivet, whose steady play and off-ice leadership have been among the Sharks' biggest assets. "We've got much more work to do in the next three months or so before the playoffs. We've got a lot to get done."

San Jose entered the all-star break tied for first place atop the Pacific Division with 61 points, matching Dallas and leading Anaheim by one point. Only Detroit and Ottawa have better records in the NHL, and the Sharks have played four fewer games than both the Stars and the Ducks.

Those numbers indicate everything is just fine for the Sharks. But other numbers say otherwise.

Start with Patrick Marleau's meagre eight goals and jaw-dropping minus-20 rating - hardly the performance San Jose expected from the longtime captain whose lucrative two-year contract extension hasn't even kicked in yet. Coach Ron Wilson has been vocally critical of Marleau, bouncing him from centre to wing and from one line to another in an attempt to spark the leading scorer in franchise history.

"It's good to get away and get your mind off things during the break," said Marleau, who's well off his one-point-per-game pace of the last two seasons. "You just try to relax and then come back as fresh as you can be. Whatever role they put you in, you've got to be ready to go."

Marleau is hardly the only disappointing scorer in San Jose. Jonathan Cheechoo, who won the Richard Trophy just two years ago as the NHL's top goal-scorer, has just nine goals in 42 games despite getting two in San Jose's final outing before the break.

"I feel I've been playing better the last month or so, but I just have to keep it going," said Cheechoo, who started slowly after double hernia surgery. "I just want to keep up the strength in my legs."

Then check out the 28-point gap between Thornton, whose team-leading 60 points include a league-best 45 assists, and No. 2 scorer Milan Michalek, who has just 17 goals and 15 assists. No other NHL club relies nearly as much on one player for so much of its offence - and Marleau's 25 points are the fewest by the third-leading scorer on any team.

Throw in the Sharks' home record (11-11-1-3), which has languished among the league's worst all season, and it's easy to see why some of the same journalists who picked San Jose to win its first Stanley Cup now claim the club is the NHL's biggest disappointment.

But San Jose's strengths can't be ignored, either. The Sharks' defence was thought to be its weakest spot entering the season, but Rivet and Kyle McLaren have led a resurgence on the blue-line. The club's 119 goals allowed are the league's third-fewest.

Nabokov has started all but one game this season, yet the veteran has never played better, entering the break with a career-low 2.16 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage to go with his NHL-leading 27 victories. The Sharks are betting heavily on Nabokov's good health, since backups Thomas Greiss and Dimitri Patzold are mostly accumulating dust.

The Sharks realize all their negative numbers will vanish in early April. San Jose has 33 games left before the post-season that will determine whether all their mid-season problems actually meant something.

"We're just taking steps every week to improve for the playoffs," McLaren said. "All this work we're doing at this point in the season is about giving us a chance to succeed in the spring. That's why you can't get too up or too down about what's going on in January."


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