SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) - Jonathan Cheechoo first spent time with Joe Thornton a few years ago, water-skiing behind the star center's boat in Canada.
Thornton is towing Cheechoo again, and the new teammates are leading linemate Nils Ekman and the San Jose Sharks on a high-scoring slalom through the NHL.
Cheechoo scored three goals for the second time in three weeks, and Thornton had a goal and three assists in the Sharks' 6-3 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night.
Ekman had four assists for the second straight game in another night of statistical superlatives for the remarkable line centered by Thornton, who tied Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk as the NHL's second-leading scorer with 58 points.
While the Sharks heaped praise on Thornton after his eighth multipoint game in 14 contests since joining the club on Dec. 1, Thornton typically passed off to his teammates - particularly Cheechoo, who has an astonishing 16 goals since Thornton's arrival.
"Cheech has the hot hand right now," Thornton said. "I haven't seen anybody like that, to be honest with you. He's a great player."
Thornton leads the league with 44 assists in 37 games, including a nifty pass between two defenders to set up Cheechoo's first goal just 3:58 into the first period. The Canadian Olympic team member already has 25 points in San Jose, while Cheechoo and Ekman are playing the best hockey of their NHL careers next to him.
"We let one line dominate us," Columbus coach Gerard Gallant said with admiration. "Those guys are the hottest line in hockey this last month. When you give Thornton and Cheechoo and whoever they play with that many opportunities, they're going to convert."
Cheechoo scored in each period, capping his second career hat trick with his team-leading 23rd goal on a power-play breakaway against goalie Marc Denis with 11:04 to play. The third-year pro, who has seven goals in San Jose's last four games, also had a hat trick against Anaheim on Dec. 20.
"He's being set up incredibly by Joe and Ek, but I can't say I've ever seen a guy playing with as much confidence as him," Sharks coach Ron Wilson said.
Ekman, thriving after his escape from Wilson's doghouse, tied the San Jose franchise record with eight points over the last two games, nearly doubling his points total for the entire season. He assisted on all three of Cheechoo's goals and on Thornton's 15th early in the first period.
"One of the best compliments you can give to a teammates is that he makes others better," Ekman said, referring to Thornton. "I speak for all the guys when I say we're very grateful to have him here."
Christian Ehrhoff and rookie Grant Stevenson also scored for the Sharks, who returned from a five-day break with their second straight victory following a four-game winless streak.
Rick Nash scored two power-play goals for Columbus, which returned from its own four-day break in a five-game road trip. Mike Rupp also scored for the Blue Jackets, still tied with St. Louis with a league-low 25 points.
"They're a good line, maybe the hottest in the league right now," Nash said. "(Vesa) Toskala played a great game. We just gave them too many chances, and they scored on every one of them."
Toskala made 28 saves for the Sharks in his second straight victory in place of slumping starter Evgeni Nabokov.
San Jose took a two-goal lead into the third period after Stevenson poked a loose puck through the pads of Denis, who made 33 saves, including a handful of stunners.
Columbus cut the lead to 4-3 on Nash's second power-play goal in the opening minute of the third period. Ehrhoff got his first goal of the season a few minutes later, and Cheechoo completed the hat trick midway through the period on a two-on-none pass from Ekman.
Notes: Columbus D Bryan Berard had two assists in his return from the injured list after missing seven games with a lower back problem. ... Defensemen Rostislav Klesla and Radoslav Suchy knocked each other down during a line change while Columbus was short-handed in the first period - and after staring at each other, both joined the play, earning a too-many-men penalty. ... San Jose D Kyle McLaren flattened Trevor Letowski with a legal hip check in the second period. Letowski left the ice, but was back for the third despite a chest bruise.
|Jonathan Cheechoo (21) ASST: Joe Thornton (41), Nisse Ekman (8)|
1 - 0 SJS
|Joe Thornton (15) ASST: Nisse Ekman (9), Christian Ehrhoff (7)|
2 - 0 SJS
|PPG - Rick Nash (6) ASST: Sergei Fedorov (8), Bryan Berard (14)|
2 - 1 SJS
|Mike Rupp (3) ASST: Dan Fritsche (3), Duvie Westcott (10)|
2 - 2 Tie
|Jonathan Cheechoo (22) ASST: Nisse Ekman (10), Joe Thornton (42)|
3 - 2 SJS
|PPG - Grant Stevenson (7) ASST: Milan Michalek (10), Marcel Goc (6)|
4 - 2 SJS
|PPG - Rick Nash (7) ASST: Bryan Berard (15), Nikolay Zherdev (11)|
4 - 3 SJS
|Christian Ehrhoff (1) ASST: Scott Thornton (9), Alyn McCauley (9)|
5 - 3 SJS
|PPG - Jonathan Cheechoo (23) ASST: Nisse Ekman (11), Joe Thornton (43)|
6 - 3 SJS
|Douglas Murray Boarding against Rick Nash|
|Kyle McLaren Delaying Game - Puck over glass|
|Bryan Berard Hooking against Alyn McCauley|
|Geoff Platt Too many men on the ice|
|Mike Rupp Interference against Kyle McLaren|
|Milan Michalek Holding against Ron Hainsey|
|Nikolay Zherdev Holding the stick against Scott Thornton|
|Rob Davison Hooking against Nikolay Zherdev|
|David Vyborny Hooking|