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(REBECCA COOK)
(REBECCA COOK)

Eric Duhatschek

Sharks - and the game - have come a long way Add to ...

If the 2010 playoffs represent a coming out party for San Jose Sharks centre Joe Thornton, they also serve as a pleasing reminder of what has changed in the game since the last time their NHL team was any sort of major player in the playoffs.

That was back in 2004, or just before commissioner Gary Bettman took the league to black, locking the players out for a year in an attempt to get costs down. It's not clear how effective that strategy was - salary caps have skyrocketed, players are still cashing big pay cheques - but the work stoppage may have been worth it anyway because the game fundamentally changed on numerous fronts, including that long-forgotten staple the come-from-behind victory.

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Thornton, for example, keyed one for the Sharks Tuesday night to give them their stranglehold 3-0 grip on the series with the Detroit Red Wings. Down two goals in the third period, Thornton conjured something out of nothing, by using his big body to muscle to the front of the net from behind the goal and wrist a shot off the stick of Pavel Datsyuk and in. After Logan Couture's seeing-eye goal from a bad angle forced OT, Thornton then set up Patrick Marleau for the winner on a night when the team with the impressive playoff resume, the Red Wings, cracked - and not the Sharks, which has been their much-maligned pattern lo these many years.

It was pretty much the same story the previous night, when the Vancouver Canucks raced out to an early 2-0 lead against the Chicago Blackhawks, only to sit back, surrender three third-period goals and let the denizens of the Madhouse on Madison back in the series.

Nor could these rallies be deemed an aberration in this wildly seesawing playoff spring.

In 49 opening-round games, the winning team trailed at some point in 24 of them. Five times, a team overcame a deficit of two or more goals to win. Nine times, a club that was behind in the third period ultimately emerged victorious.

It used to be, back in the dark days of 2004 and earlier, that a third-period lead was money in the bank; and that teams could simply choke the life out of any game by hooking, holding and obstructing the opposition. It was one reason the Sharks eventually fell in that year's playoffs - losing the conference final to a Calgary Flames' team that relied on its ability to shut down the neutral zone to any hint of creativity. It didn't hurt that goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff followed up a regular season in which he posted a minuscule 1.69 goals-against average with a playoff that featured a 1.85 GAA - and five shutouts altogether in 26 starts.

That the Sharks - and the game of hockey - have come a long way since then goes without saying. San Jose, in 2004, was at the start of a six-year run in which they finished first or second in their division every year and have averaged 108 points per season in that span.

What's remarkable is how significant their turnover has been in that time. Only two players remain from the 2004 team - Patrick Marleau, the ex-captain, and Evgeni Nabokov, their starting goaltender. The 2004 Sharks relied on Vincent Damphousse and Mike Ricci, Alexander Korolyuk and Jonathan Cheechoo up front and a top-three on defence consisting of Scott Hannan, Brad Stuart and Kyle McLaren. Thornton hadn't arrived yet; nor had Dan Boyle, and Marc-Eduard Vlasic would eventually be drafted with the second-round pick that the Sharks received in exchange for Kiprusoff.

So when the Sharks repeat, over and over, that the current edition of the team should not be responsible for the sins of its predecessors, there is some logic and merit to the argument. The Sharks, under general manager Doug Wilson, have been busy tweaking and adjusting personnel, year after year, in order to find that elusive chemistry. To say that it is absolutely, unquestionably in place would be premature. One more win over the Red Wings and a berth in the conference final would still only represent half the journey to the Stanley Cup - and even if the odds are against Detroit, no one with any sense would take anything for granted just yet.

Still, the first three games of their series were all decided by a single goal. They were close encounters of the playoff kind and thus could have gone either way. Normally, in the past, Detroit would have found ways to win them - or if not, San Jose might have found a way to lose. But not this year. And the fact that Thornton provided the pivotal scoring in each of the past two games - he was also responsible for the winner in Game 2 - further illustrates that these are not necessarily the same Sharks any more, not on the ice, and not in the dressing room either.

 

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