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Strong first-round playoff play has San Jose Sharks thinking big

The Sharks took a leisurely flight back from Tennessee on Saturday after finishing off the Predators in Game 5 of their first-round series Friday night.

With timely offence and sterling defence in front of goalie Evgeni Nabokov, San Jose eliminated Nashville for the second straight season - and the Sharks' reward was a weekend of recuperation from a series that was far tougher than the tidy finish indicated.

The Sharks don't know when or where they'll play next, but they'll spend the ensuing days making sure their third straight trip to the second round is just as sharp as this opening series - and a whole lot better than last season's second-round loss to Edmonton.

"It's going to be nice just to rest for a couple days after a nice series," said Joe Thornton, who proved the inaccuracy of his reputation as a playoff underachiever with six assists in the series, tying captain Patrick Marleau for the club's scoring lead.

Though San Jose won in five games, the series was tight and tough - making its quick finish all the more remarkable for a club that might be peaking at an ideal time. The Sharks finished with one-goal victories Wednesday and Friday while relentlessly wearing down the Predators, who finished third overall in the NHL during the regular season.

"Any time you win a series, it's satisfying, (but) we're looking for the next one," said defenceman Scott Hannan, who has raised his play since a mediocre start to the season. "We're not thinking of what happened last year. We're thinking this year. We've got a couple days, then right back at it."

With the memories of last season's second-round collapse against Edmonton still fresh, coach Ron Wilson seemed thrilled by his club's willingness to stick to his game plan against the Predators this time. San Jose consistently kept the puck in Nashville's end with hard work and heavy checking, frustrating Paul Kariya, Peter Forsberg and Jason Arnott.

Those lessons will be valuable if the Sharks next meet up with Detroit or Anaheim. Their next opponent will be another speedy club with ample offensive talent - but unlike the Oilers, it won't be someone who could sneak up on the Sharks.

"We failed last year (after) we got by Nashville," Wilson said. "This year, we're certainly not going to be facing anyone we would be taking lightly."

When the Sharks get back to practice, it's easy to guess they'll work on their power play. After ranking among the NHL's top two teams with the man advantage for most of the regular season, San Jose went an inexplicable 2-for-30 against the Predators, failing even to make the simplest plays.

Yet it didn't hurt the Sharks because their 5-on-5 play was so exceptional. They were particularly sturdy on defence, where rookies Matt Carle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic played confidently - and newcomer Craig Rivet scored five points to rank second among all defencemen.

The time off will be helpful for Jonathan Cheechoo and Steve Bernier, who both played through injuries from questionable hits.

Cheechoo, the Sharks' top goal-scorer during the regular season, didn't find the net against Nashville. Neither did Bill Guerin, the playoff-tested veteran acquired from St. Louis at the trade deadline for the playoff stretch.

But with plenty of time to rest and prepare, the Sharks seem increasingly confident they can handle the next tough Western Conference opponent.

"For anybody that ever says it's tougher because you have more of a layoff, that's really not true," said forward Curtis Brown, who teamed with Mike Grier to make life miserable for the Predators' best skill players.

"To get a couple of days to catch up on some rest, I would just as soon see all those (remaining) series go long. It's a marathon, not a sprint."



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