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Around the West: Sharks reunite Big Three

by Dan Rosen
Todd McLellan and his coaching staff in San Jose came up with a plan this summer to keep Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau apart as often as they have them play together. One great night from the Sharks' Big Three isn't going to alter McLellan's early season experiment.

"We will 100-percent continue on with our plan originally to try to create some chemistry with them being apart," McLellan told Thursday, one day after Thornton, Heatley and Marleau combined for 13 points and produced all of the Sharks' goals in a 5-2 win against New Jersey at HP Pavilion.

McLellan isn't sure when he'll go back to the experiment because he's smart enough to leave well enough alone for now, but his goal is to have the ability to play Thornton, Heatley and Marleau on different lines later in the season and feel comfortable and confident doing so.

He did last season, specifically in the second-round series against Detroit, and the Sharks won in five games.

"There is a plan, a method to the madness here," he said. "We have to develop consistency as a group. Those three players, when they played last year they were very consistent. There were very few dry spells and for the most part the rest of the team fell into line. We're anticipating that will happen again, but there are no guarantees."

McLellan didn't unite the Big Three until last week in Denver, the Sharks' fifth game of the season. San Jose was stale and wasn't producing at even strength, so he figured it was time to get Thornton, Marleau and Heatley back together to see if they could ignite the team.

It wasn't until Wednesday against the Devils that the line exerted its will in 5-on-5 action. They had four 5-on-5 goals Wednesday after scoring just six over their first seven games.

"We challenged them to lead and it was an exceptional night of leadership," McLellan said. "Those three have to get it done."

Finally, we couldn't let McLellan get off the phone without asking him about goalie Antti Niemi, the Stanley Cup-winning goaltender who is 1-3 with an .854 save percentage and 4.49 goals-against average in his first month with the Sharks.

"I think he is still getting accustomed to a new environment," McLellan said. "The team itself, when you look at his starts, has not played well in front of him. He was a victim in Calgary (4-0 loss). They were tic-tac-toe plays through the crease. But he hasn't been as sharp as we'd hoped he would be. He knows it and we've talked to him about it. We're still real comfortable with him in net."

Now let's go Around the Conference. The teams are listed in order of where they are in the standings.

 Los Angeles Kings (7-3-0, 14 points)

The Kings wrapped a five-game road trip with a 5-2 win in Dallas on Thursday. They went 3-2 on the trip. Drew Doughty missed the entire trip with a concussion and he remains out indefinitely. Wayne Simmonds, who scored Thursday, was forced to leave early in the third period with a lower-body injury. L.A. opens a five-game home stand Saturday against the Devils.

 Nashville Predators (5-1-3, 13 points)

The Predators went from the only NHL team without a regulation loss prior to Thursday's game to a team that is struggling to win on its home ice once St. Louis' 3-0 win was in the books. Nashville has won only twice in six tries at Bridgestone Arena, but three of the losses have come in overtime. The Predators' streak of seven straight games decided by one goal came to an end.

 Calgary Flames (6-4-0, 12 points)

Coach Brent Sutter was critical of his team following its 6-5 loss to Colorado on Thursday, which snapped a three-game win streak. The Flames gave up a 3-1 lead they built halfway through the game. "When you've got a 3-1 lead in your own building with that much time left, you nail it down," Sutter said. "Good teams, that's what they do." Brendan Morrison has been surprisingly effective with 9 points.

 Chicago Blackhawks (6-4-1, 13 points)

Marian Hossa suffered an upper-body injury in the second period Wednesday and is expected to miss "a couple of weeks," said coach Joel Quenneville. Hossa has 7 goals and 4 assists. Chicago has back-to-back games at home against Edmonton and on the road in Minnesota on Friday and Saturday before coming to New York to play the Rangers on Monday. Defenseman Brian Campbell (knee) is skating with the team.

 St. Louis Blues (5-1-2, 12 points)

The good times rolled on for the Blues on Thursday as they handed Nashville its first regulation loss of the season. Jaroslav Halak picked up his second straight shutout and the Blues won for the third straight time and fourth in as many games at home. St. Louis will be without defenseman Roman Polak for a while -- he had surgery on his right wrist this week to repair a severed tendon.

 Columbus Blue Jackets (6-3-0, 12 points)

The Jackets have been feeling good and looking good since a 6-2 loss to Calgary last week. Their 3-2 shootout win against Edmonton on Thursday was their third straight victory and fifth in six games. They've been winning without much in the way of offense from captain Rick Nash, which is a positive sign for the rest of the lineup but also an indication that Nash, who has 3 goals and 4 points in nine games, needs to pick it up.

 Detroit Red Wings (5-2-1, 11 points)

Back spasms forced goalie Jimmy Howard to miss Thursday's game against Phoenix. Chris Osgood replaced him and gave up three goals in the first period of what became a 4-2 defeat. Coach Mike Babcock wanted to give his underperforming third line of Jiri Hudler, Mike Modano and Danny Cleary one more game together, but after Phoenix took a 3-0 lead he switched his lines around. He put the third line back together later in the game, but he punted on a question about that trio following the game, saying he needed to see the game tape first.

 Colorado Avalanche (5-4-1, 11 points)

Adversity hit Denver this week with goalie Craig Anderson going out indefinitely with a knee injury. Without their No. 1 goalie, the Avs have allowed nine goals in the last two games, but thanks to a hat trick from Chris Stewart and an inspired third-period rally Thursday in Calgary, the Avalanche escaped with a 6-5 win against the Flames. Stewart is on a seven-game point scoring streak (7-5-12).

 Minnesota Wild (4-3-2, 10 points)

A 2-1 win against Washington on Thursday allowed the Wild to forget about a lot of different things. For instance, there are the groin injuries to Guillaume Latendresse and Cam Barker, neither of whom played. There's also the controversy created by Martin Havlat's agent, Allan Walsh, who offered his hard criticism of Wild coach Todd Richards' use of his client to Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Havlat still hasn't scored a goal this season. He had one shot in 17:27 of ice time Thursday.

 Vancouver Canucks (4-3-2, 10 points)

The Canucks have won two straight, but with nearly a week between games (they played Tuesday and won't play again until this coming Monday), it's an opportunity for them to work on some of the things that have gotten away from them and also hopefully get their blue line healthy. Dan Hamhuis (foot), Keith Ballard (concussion) and Andrew Alberts (knee) all are ailing.

 Dallas Stars (5-4-0, 10 points)

After starting 4-0, the Stars have dropped four of five, including three in a row. They have four goals during their three-game losing skid. Kari Lehtonen has allowed nine goals in his last two games. He's been hot and cold, allowing four or more goals in four games and two or fewer four times. Mike Ribeiro has not scored a goal yet and Loui Eriksson has just one in the last five games.

 San Jose Sharks (4-3-1, 9 points)

Joe Thornton's hat trick in Wednesday's 5-2 win against New Jersey was the fourth of his career and first at HP Pavilion. He was reunited with Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley and that line generated all five goals and combined for 13 points. The Sharks were supposed to have a day off after playing in Calgary on Sunday, but they lost 4-0 so coach Todd McLellan made them report to the rink Monday. The extra practice session paid dividends in Wednesday's win.

 Phoenix Coyotes (3-3-3, 9 points)

The Coyotes needed Thursday's 4-2 win in Detroit in the worst way, as they had won just once in six previous games since returning from their season-opening trip to Prague. After back-to-back overtime losses, they got blitzed by Ottawa, 5-2, on Tuesday. So Ilya Bryzgalov's 43 saves and a three-goal first period were big. Lee Stempniak hasn't scored in four games since his hat trick Oct. 21.

 Anaheim Ducks (4-5-1, 9 points)

The Ducks have a grand opportunity Friday to get on a roll by winning back-to-back games for the first time. The Devils are coming down from San Jose and they are struggling, with the worst record in the Eastern Conference. The Ducks are trying to forget about a slow start, and a win Friday would go a long way toward doing that.

 Edmonton Oilers (2-4-2, 6 points)

Taylor Hall scored his first NHL goal Thursday, but the Oilers are winless in six straight (0-4-2). The good news is it was their second straight loss in a game that went to a shootout, so at least they're picking up points. And, the kids are faring OK. Coach Tom Renney would like to see his team have better starts. The Oilers have been outscored 10-5 in the first period over the last six games.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
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