SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -If there's ever a good time to get injured, captain Patrick Marleau thinks he and his fellow San Jose Sharks found it.
The San Jose captain is even more grateful to return to the ice at nearly the perfect moment: just in time to attempt to win the Presidents' Trophy on Thursday night.
Marleau and high-scoring forward Ryane Clowe both expect be in San Jose's lineup for the NHL-leading club's regular-season home finale against the Phoenix Coyotes. The Sharks (53-16-11, 117 points) could clinch the trophy and the league's best record with one last victory in the Shark Tank, where they're an NHL-best 32-4-4.
"I think it's good, it's healthy, that we're still fighting for something," Marleau said. "It's kind of worked out the right way, where we were able to get injured at the right time to still come back (before the playoffs)."
Veterans Claude Lemieux and Mike Grier returned from 18-game absences Tuesday night, one game in advance of Clowe and Marleau, who were both out with unspecified lower-body injuries. Marleau has missed five games, including Tuesday's ugly 1-0 shootout win over Colorado, while Clowe has been sidelined since March 19.
Best of all to Clowe, the Sharks' top two lines will be fully intact for the first time in practically two months. Marleau is expected to return to his place across from Devin Setoguchi on fellow All-Star Joe Thornton's top line, while Clowe will rejoin Milan Michalek and center Joe Pavelski.
"I've been skating pretty good, and playing these last two games will help for sure," said Clowe, who has experience with late-season surges after missing 67 games last year following knee surgery, only to star for the Sharks in the postseason. "Maybe a couple of weeks (off) will recharge the battery and get us going again. ... At least when everyone got injured, they got injured at the right time. Everybody's coming back at the right time."
Coach Todd McLellan doesn't agree with his players' thoughts on ideal timing. He would have preferred more than two tuneup games for all four of his recovering regulars, and he's still hoping for good news on injured defenseman Kent Huskins and forward Torrey Mitchell, who haven't played at all for the Sharks this season.
The Sharks lead Boston by five points and Detroit by six, with one fewer game left than both rivals. They might even have the trophy clinched before the game, but only if both the Bruins and the Red Wings lose home games earlier in the night - an unlikely prospect.
San Jose finishes the regular season Saturday at Los Angeles, and is likely to open the playoffs Wednesday.
"It's been a while since we've had that rotation set up like that," McLellan said of his top two lines, which were both outstanding for most of the season's first 60 games. "Hopefully in these two games, they come in and click and find their rhythm. ... Other teams in the league have had a ton of injuries as well. We can't use it as an excuse or a crutch. It's more about the ultimate prize, and that's in June, and not in April."
The Sharks are predictably ambivalent about the prospect of their first Presidents' Trophy. Although winning it would arguably would be the club's biggest accomplishment in 17 seasons in the league, most hockey players only get excited about cups, not trophies.
"It's quite an accomplishment," Clowe said. "When you see teams on your tail, you can't ever take a night off. It's a great accomplishment, but it's not the one you really want. I think our guys are proud of it, and going onto the ice and having the best record should give the guys some confidence."
Even more reinforcements might be available soon: Huskins thinks he could be just about ready to play after foot surgery, although McLellan think he's still feeling a bit too much pain. The Sharks acquired Huskins from Anaheim at the trade deadline along with Travis Moen.
"They just told me to keep preparing and be ready to go," Huskins said. "As a player, you probably feel you could play through a certain amount of stuff, but I'm pretty much pain-free, and the strengthening is coming along."
Mitchell has missed the entire season with leg injuries, but is still working out with the Sharks, who have been cagey about whether he could make a postseason appearance.