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Thornton-Kesler matchup intriguing subplot in Western Conference final

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

VANCOUVER - San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan knows what it takes to win in the playoffs.

A former assistant in Detroit, McLellan has seen leaders push themselves harder as their clubs get closer to the Stanley Cup.

"I've seen it with the (Steve) Yzermans, I've seen it with the (Niklas) Lidstroms," McLellan said.

In 2011, he's seeing that same kind of drive from his captain, Joe Thorton, and Vancouver's Ryan Kesler.

"I believe how the elite push themselves is to demand more from themselves," McLellan said Saturday as his team prepared for Game 1 of the Western Conference final with the Canucks.

"I sat and talked with (Thornton) ... and he basically gave me the same message. He said, 'I'll be better, I can be better.'"

The hard-nosed Kesler, the leading scorer in the playoffs, will be going head-to-head with Thornton. McLellan expects it to be a spirited battle.

"The elite approach the game that way. They're never happy with what they have," McLellan said. "Obviously Ryan's playing that way. We have players that are approaching it the same way."

It's an interesting subplot for Sunday's first game of the best-of-seven Western Conference final.

Desipte the hype, both Kesler and Thornton said it will be business as usual when once the games begin.

"Our line all year and last year and the year before ... we always play against the top lines so really it's no big deal to us," said Thornton, whose club practised before arriving in Vancouver.

"You've just got to go out and play and play hard because they're going to play hard against you."

Thornton had blood oozing from a cut over his eye the last time he played at the Canucks' Rogers Arena.

Kesler, who didn't score until the second game of the second round against Nashville, said he's not going to change his style.

"I'm going to continue to play the same way, put the same game on the ice," said Kesler, who scored four goals in the final four games against the Predators in the second round.

"For me it's going to be a matter of getting those scoring chances and bearing down when I get them."

Joe Pavelski, who centres the Sharks' third line, said his former U.S. Olympic teammate will not be easy to contain.

"You need a couple of lines going against him," Pavelski said. "You need all five guys on the ice chipping in and I'm sure he'd probably be the first to say you need your linemates along the way."

Thornton, whose nickname 'Jumbo' fits his six-foot-four, 230-pound frame, uses his big body to create scoring space for wingers Devin Setoguchi and Patrick Marleau.

Thornton has a pass-first mentality, while Kesler had a career-high 41 goals, fourth in the NHL during the regular season.

Thornton orchestrates the Sharks' power play, but Kesler bulls to the net and plants himself there when the Canucks have the man advantage.

Both can be dangerous killing penalties.

"He's a big guy, really strong," Canucks captain Henrik Sedin said of his San Jose counterpart.

"Likes to score. He's one of the best in the league. He can make plays. You have to be careful when you run up against him."

Thornton, a former Hart trophy winner, has two goals and 11 points in the playoffs.

While the Canucks might match up better on the blue-line, the Sharks will counter with scoring depth. San Jose has seven players with 20 or more goals while the Canucks have three.

They no longer need to depend on Thornton, Marleau and Dany Heatley.

"We've had the Big Three," McLellan said of his depth. "We've had one line in the past and a line and a half.

"And when it doesn't work and you get shut down and you have nothing else to turn to, you seldom win."

The Sharks have piled up 100 or more points for the last five years but have been criticized as chronic playoff underachievers.

Last year they were swept by Chicago in the conference final. In2009 they won the President's Trophy with 117 points and lost to Anaheim in the first round.

Both clubs saw 3-0 series leads melt away this post-season. Vancouver needed Alex Burrows' overtime goal in Game 7 to eliminate Chicago in the first round.

Ryane Clowe, who missed a game against Detroit, leads the Sharks with 13 points on four goals and nine assists.

Logan Couture, a rookie-of-the-year nominee, has matched Setoguchi's team-leading six goals while Pavelski has five.

"We're pretty confident with our depth," said puck-moving defenceman Dan Boyle who'll return to the ice sheet where he won Olympic gold.

"We feel our top three lines are very capable of obviously playing good defence, but they can put the puck in the net, too."

Notes: Clowe is looking to become the second Newfoundlander to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup. ... Dan Cleary of the Detroit Red Wings was first to do it in 2008. ... San Jose defenceman Ian White and wife Tess celebrated the birth of daughter Gracelyn Sophia a few hours after the Sharks eliminated Detroit.


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