SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) - In two magical back-to-back nights, Joe Thornton took a share of the NHL scoring lead, just about singlehandedly set the West's eight-team playoff field and ended the Vancouver Canucks' postseason hopes.
Afterward, he was ready to contemplate even bigger things - not for himself, but for his San Jose Sharks, who are headed to the postseason with all the momentum Thornton can gather.
Rookie Matt Carle scored the go-ahead goal on a pass from Thornton with 8:36 left, and the Sharks eliminated Vancouver from playoff contention with their franchise-record seventh straight victory, 5-3 over the Canucks on Thursday night.
Thornton had three assists to tie Jaromir Jagr with 122 points in his tremendous season since joining the Sharks in a trade with Boston. Thornton had seven assists in about 27 hours during San Jose's back-to-back wins over the Canucks, pushing the Sharks into fifth place in the Western Conference standings with 97 points, one ahead of Anaheim.
The Sharks still aren't satisfied - not with the carefree Thornton playing arguably the best hockey of his career.
"You never know," Thornton said. "Top seeds might get knocked out, and we could get home ice in the second or third round. ... I love it out here. I feel really strong, and we're winning a lot of games."
Jonathan Cheechoo scored an early goal and an empty-netter with 16.2 seconds left for San Jose, which clinched a playoff berth with a 5-4 overtime win at Vancouver on Wednesday night. Cheechoo has 53 goals, one behind Jagr and one ahead of Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk for the NHL lead.
Both the Sharks and the Rangers have two games left in the regular season.
Todd Bertuzzi had a goal and two assists for the Canucks, who will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2000. It's a hugely disappointing finish for Vancouver, touted as a Stanley Cup contender early in the season.
"We had leads the last two nights, but I don't know why we can't put any teams away," captain Markus Naslund said. "We were in a must-win situation, and we couldn't get it done. It's a very disappointing end to a very disappointing season for us. We gave a good effort, but I don't know if we gave it our all."
Ed Jovanovski and Brendan Morrison also scored for the Canucks, who went into the third period with a 3-2 lead - but their consecutive losses to San Jose allowed seventh-place Colorado and eighth-place Edmonton to clinch playoff berths.
"They were tight, and squeezing the sticks as they were, we were able to take advantage of it," Sharks coach Ron Wilson said. "When you get on a roll like this, you go storming into the playoffs. ... That team we played tonight is totally drained because they're surrounded by a negative atmosphere, and it's sliding all the way down the (roster)."
Nils Ekman and Ville Nieminen also scored as the Sharks won for the 15th time in 20 games - including four victories in the last five nights - while surging into the postseason.
"It's been a playoff atmosphere for us for a while, so I think we'll be ready," Cheechoo said. "We wanted to get into the show."
With a win over the Mighty Ducks on Saturday, San Jose could clinch the No. 5 seed in the West and a first-round meeting with the Nashville Predators.
Alex Auld made 23 saves for Vancouver, which has 90 points with one game left - not enough time to catch the Oilers, who have 93.
Bertuzzi put the Canucks ahead late in the second period with a power-play goal, but Nieminen tied it for San Jose early in the third.
"When we got that third goal, I thought it might just be our night," Vancouver coach Marc Crawford said. "But when they got their third goal, it seemed to give them a lot of life. It got the building (excited)."
Thornton's inimitable passing - and seldom-used goalie Evgeni Nabokov's smart play - made the difference during a San Jose power play moments later. Nabokov fired the puck from his net to Thornton at the Canucks' blue line during a Vancouver change, and Thornton dangled on the wing before finding Carle for a sharp scoring shot past Alex Auld.
Carle, who won the Hobey Baker award as the NCAA's top player last week, also had an assist to give him six points in his first 10 NHL games.
Notes: Ekman's goal was upheld after a lengthy video review to determine whether he kicked the puck into the net. ... Bertuzzi had just one goal and two assists in his previous seven games. ... Nabokov, the Sharks' deposed No. 1 goalie making his first appearance in eight games, stopped 17 shots. He has played just six times since the Olympic break.
|Ed Jovanovski (8) ASST: Todd Bertuzzi (45)|
1 - 0 VAN
|PPG - Nisse Ekman (20) ASST: Matthew Carle (3), Jonathan Cheechoo (35)|
1 - 1 Tie
|PPG - Brendan Morrison (18) ASST: Todd Bertuzzi (46), Markus Naslund (46)|
2 - 1 VAN
|PPG - Jonathan Cheechoo (52) ASST: Tom Preissing (31), Joe Thornton (92)|
2 - 2 Tie
|PPG - Todd Bertuzzi (24) ASST: Ed Jovanovski (24), Markus Naslund (47)|
3 - 2 VAN
|Ville Nieminen (8) ASST: Marcel Goc (14), Kyle McLaren (21)|
3 - 3 Tie
|PPG - Matthew Carle (3) ASST: Joe Thornton (93), Evgeni Nabokov (1)|
4 - 3 SJS
|EN - Jonathan Cheechoo (53) ASST: Joe Thornton (94)|
5 - 3 SJS
|Sean Brown Hooking against Joe Thornton|
|Daniel Sedin Hi-sticking against Christian Ehrhoff|
|Bryan Allen Delaying Game-Puck over glass|
|Markus Naslund Hooking against Joe Thornton|
|Patrick Rissmiller Roughing against Bryan Allen|
|Bryan Allen Roughing against Patrick Rissmiller|
|Keith Carney Tripping against Jonathan Cheechoo|
|Jonathan Cheechoo Hooking against Todd Bertuzzi|
|Patrick Marleau Hi-sticking against Alexandre Burrows|
|Sean Brown Hooking against Nisse Ekman|
|Brendan Morrison Hooking against Patrick Marleau|
|Nisse Ekman Hooking against Anson Carter|
|Keith Carney Interference against Christian Ehrhoff|
|Matthew Carle Delaying Game-Puck over glass|
|Mattias Ohlund Holding against Joe Thornton|