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by Staff Writer / Los Angeles Kings
There's still no guarantee that Claude Lemieux will make it back to the NHL after being retired for five years. But the 43-year-old moved another step closer Monday by signing a contract with the San Jose Sharks.

Lemieux signed a two-way contract with San Jose, meaning that he can be sent to the minors. Prior to the deal, he had been playing with the Worcester Sharks under an AHL contract, meaning that he technically was not San Jose property.

"This is simply the next step in the evaluation process with Claude," Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson said.

Lemieux still had to clear NHL waivers, after which Wilson said the four-time Stanley Cup winner would be assigned to Worcester again.

Lemieux's postseason prowess could be of interest to the Sharks, who are on the way to their second consecutive Pacific Division title, but are trying to overcome the legacy of some early-round upset losses.

Lemieux has 2 goals and 6 points and is plus-3 in 14 games since signing with Worcester, but Wilson said those numbers won't be a major factor in how the Sharks evaluate him.

"He could score three goals in each of the next 10 games and it wouldn't matter," Wilson told the San Jose Mercury-News. "This is about two-way play, at both ends of the rink."

But by signing Lemieux to a contract that could bring him back to the NHL, Wilson would appear to be acknowledging that the Sharks are impressed with what they've seen from him so far.

"This gives us the opportunity to progress, and if he can be an ingredient better than what we have, then we will consider it," Wilson said. "But only at that time."

Lemieux was signed to an AHL contract with the Worcester Sharks, San Jose’s top development affiliate in the American Hockey League, on Nov. 25. In 14 games with Worcester, Lemieux has posted six points (two goals, four assists) and 12 penalty minutes and is plus-3.

The Bobby Ryan Express -- Teemu Selanne's injury was Bobby Ryan's opportunity -- and he's making the most of it.

The No. 2 pick in the 2005 Entry Draft has more than filled Selanne's role since Selanne went down with a lacerated leg during his first shift in Edmonton on Dec. 19. He scored 2 goals and added 6 assists in the Ducks' first five games (including the game-winner against the Oilers) after Selanne was hurt.

"For a young player, that’s very difficult," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said of Ryan, who tied a career high with three points on Dec. 22 at Vancouver. "It's a tribute to him because we had him with (Ryan) Carter and (George) Parros for five or six games, and they started to provide offense. And then we moved him with (Andrew) Ebbett and (Brendan) Morrison after the injury to Selanne, and that line started to provide offense. There's one common denominator."

Ryan brought an offensive dimension to the Ducks' fourth line when paired with Carter and Parros; he's continued to generate points on the Ducks' second line. In all, he has 18 points in 19 games -- good enough to be in the top 10 in scoring among rookies despite playing at least 10 fewer games than anyone else in the top 10.

Perhaps Ryan's biggest point was the third-period goal he scored Sunday night that gave the Ducks a 4-3 win at St. Louis. Anaheim came in having lost three consecutive road games, each by one goal.

"Bobby's an offensive player, and you can see that he's a different kind of player now than he was at the beginning of the year," Carlyle said. "He's gaining confidence on a day-to-day basis."

Ryan's play has also given a jump-start to Morrison, who had back-to-back two-goal games on Dec. 23 and 27 to double his goal total in his first 33 games.

"I'm happy to fill a void, obviously," Ryan said. "I've got a few games to make the most of it. For me, it's just move the puck, get open and finish because I know I'm going to get chances."

"Z" on D -- Talk about "Z" in Boston and you'll get an earful about All-Star defenseman Zdeno Chara. But mention the same letter in the desert and the discussion turns to Phoenix defenseman Zbynek Michalek, the NHL's busiest shot-blocker.

Through Dec. 30, Michalek was tops in the NHL with 127 blocked shots -- just about four per game. He has no complaints about being one of the NHL's best at one of hockey's most thankless jobs.

"This year, the coaches gave me more of a shutdown defenseman role versus the other teams’ top lines," the 25-year-old native of the Czech Republic said. "It’s been challenging every single night and it’s a tough job because you have to be mentally ready every day and every game because you are playing against the best players on the planet.

"Blocking shots is just one part of it, but it can help us win games and I’m trying to help us win games. That's the way I play. I don’t even think about it. It just comes natural to me."

Though Michalek has blocked more shots than anyone else in the League this season, he says one of the most important attributes of a good shot-blocker is knowing when not to try to block one.

"You have to be careful not to screen your goalie," Michalek said. "You have to realize that you can’t block every shot, and on the ones you can’t block you have to make sure the goalie can see the puck. So you have to pick your spots and make sure the timing is right."

One of the players whose shots Michalek tries to block is his younger brother, Milan, a forward who plays for the San Jose Sharks. But though they play on division rivals, Zbynek said he and Milan not only are brothers, they are great friends.

"We are really close," he said. "We always talk on the phone and whenever we play each other we usually go out for dinner the night before the game. We're always supporting each other. I’m always following his games on TV or on the Internet, and he follows my games."

But what happens when the Coyotes and Sharks take to the ice?

"It’s a fun rivalry, but I have extra motivation when we play against the Sharks," Michalek said.

"Every time we play them, I want us to show up and play a good game and prove to him, and all of them, that we are a good team and that we can beat them because they’re a good team and it’s a big challenge. Plus, we have the same friends back home in the Czech Republic and I don't want him to be all over me that they beat us all the time."

A Quick start
-- The L.A. Kings No. 1 goaltending job has gone from Jason LaBarbera to Erik Ersberg and now, apparently, to rookie Jonathan Quick.

The former UMass star has played his way into the lineup thanks to a four-game stretch in which he allowed just three goals. That includes his first two NHL shutouts -- 3-0 at Columbus on Dec. 23 and 4-0 at Phoenix four nights later. He lost his other two starts despite allowing just three goals -- 2-1 to Phoenix and 2-0 (including an empty-netter) to Columbus.

In his six appearances, he's stopped 134 of 143 shots, a .937 save percentage. His 2-1-0 record, 0.67 goals-against average and two shutouts earned him the NHL's third star for the week of Dec. 22-28.

"Quick has played well," coach Terry Murray said. "He looks confident, he is under control, he's really following the puck. He makes the big stop whenever he is asked of it."

Ersberg is ready to return from a groin injury, but it looks like Quick won't be going anywhere. Instead, it's LaBarbera who's leaving; he was dealt to Vancouver on Tuesday.

Quick is happy just to be getting a chance to play in the NHL after spending the first two months of the season in the minors.

"No matter what the situation is, to be part of something like this, that should be enough motivation," Quick said.

Ice chips -- Anaheim played four consecutive games all decided by the same score -- 4-3. The Ducks lost the first three, at Vancouver, Calgary and Dallas, before winning at St. Louis on Sunday. ... It's not unusual that an Anaheim player named Niedermayer is productive offensively -- but it is when the player is Rob Niedermayer, not Scott. Rob had his eighth goal of the season in Sunday's win at St. Louis, matching his output for all of last season. He has three more goals than Scott, but Scott has 19 points to Rob's 11. ... San Jose set a franchise record for fastest five goals in a game by scoring five times in the first 20:43 of a 5-0 victory over San Jose on Dec. 23. The Sharks scored three times in the first period and twice in the first 43 seconds of the middle period. ... San Jose extended its penalty-killing streak to 25 by killing off all six Dallas power plays in a 3-1 road win over the Stars on Dec. 29. San Jose's penalty-killers haven’t allowed a goal since a 5-4 home win over St. Louis on Dec. 13. ... Phoenix goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov wore a specially painted holiday mask for the Coyotes' first two games after the Christmas break. He was scheduled to wear the mask again against Colorado on Dec. 31 before donating it to Coyotes Charities; the mask will be auctioned off on beginning Jan. 1 and running through Jan. 14. ... The Coyotes celebrated the fifth anniversary of Arena when they hosted the Los Angeles Kings on Dec. 27. The arena, in suburban Glendale, Ariz., opened on Dec. 26, 2003, and the Coyotes played their first game there the next night, losing 3-1 to Nashville. ... Los Angeles shut out the Columbus Blue Jackets for 158 minutes and 36 seconds this season before surrendering a power-play goal to Kris Russell with 1:24 left in the second period on Dec. 29, a game the Blue Jackets wound up winning 2-0. The Kings won each of the first two meetings 3-0. ... Los Angeles improved by 10 points in its first 36 games of 2008-09, compared with its first 36 games in '07-08. The Kings were 15-15-6 for 36 points, up from 26 (12-22-2) a year ago. Most of the improvement came defensively. The team scored 95 goals, one less than last season, but reduced its goals-against total from 121 to 100. ... Dallas goaltender Marty Turco has now stopped the last 13 penalty shots he's faced after foiling San Jose's Patrick Marleau in the third period of a 3-1 loss to the Sharks on Dec. 29. ... Mike Modano's overtime game-winner against Anaheim on Dec. 27 was the ninth OT goal of his career, leaving him tied for seventh among active players. The win improved Dallas' record against Anaheim to 10-2-3 in their last 15 regular-season meetings.

Material from wire services and team Web sites was used in this report

Author: John Kreiser | Columnist

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