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Marleau is Pacific's midseason top star

by John Kreiser
Halfway through the season, the San Jose Sharks have established themselves as the class of the Pacific Division.

The Sharks got off to a fast start, partly by being unbeatable at home, and have never looked back. Through the first half of the season, they were the only team in the League that was unbeaten in regulation on home ice (19-0-2).

Anaheim and Dallas got off to slow starts. The Ducks have rebounded and entered the second half within the top eight needed for a playoff berth. The Stars, hampered by struggles in their own zone, are still on the outside looking in.

The division's two non-playoff teams from last season are improved. Olli Jokinen and an influx of talented youngsters have helped Phoenix, which is battling for a playoff berth, while new coach Terry Murray's system has helped Los Angeles tighten up defensively.

Here's a look at the good and bad of the first half from the Pacific Five:

Player of the First Half: Patrick Marleau, San Jose
-- After a dreadful season in 2007-08, San Jose's captain has rebounded with what's shaping up as his best campaign. Joe Thornton may have more points, but Marleau has provided points, big goals and leadership for the NHL's best first-half team.

Marleau finished the first half with 23 goals, four more than he had all last season, and 46 points, two short of his 2007-08 total. He's tied for second in the League in shorthanded goals (3) and game-winners (6).

Coach Todd McLellan was impressed with the way Marleau stepped up this past weekend, getting two goals each in back-to-back road wins at Edmonton and Vancouver.

"I was very happy to see him elevate his game in the third period," he said. "He's done that two nights in a row and as a result we win games."

Marleau has taken more of a leadership role, as McLellan noted after Friday's 4-1 win at Edmonton — a game that followed a poor effort in a 5-2 loss at Calgary.

"He wasn't happy with the effort the other night," McLellan said. "He takes a huge leadership role in making sure the team is prepared. If he's not playing that way probably most of the other team isn't, so I was really happy with him."

There's been little to be unhappy about with Marleau's play — not when he's on pace for a 46-goal, 92-point season.

Coach of the First Half: Todd McLellan, San Jose -- General Manager Doug Wilson knew he had a talented roster. But he wasn't happy with their continued problems in the playoffs. After a second-round loss to Dallas last spring, he fired Ron Wilson, the winningest coach in franchise history, and brought in McLellan, an assistant with the Detroit Red Wings who had never been in charge of an NHL team.

Talk about the right man for the job. With a group of big, talented forwards and an improved defense, McLellan has used a simple game: Put lots of pucks on the net and be strong in the middle at both ends. So far, so good — the Sharks were 31-5-5 at the halfway point.

"The system breeds confidence," forward Mike Grier said. "They've forced us to skate and we've done that."

McLellan, who's still searching for the perfect 60-minute effort from his team, nonetheless says the players picked up quickly on what he and his staff were trying to teach.

"The word for it is receptive," McLellan said about how his team has accepted his methods. "They are receptive in different situations. We exposed them to things in training camp on how we wanted them to play. We've challenged them individually and as a team when things weren't going good and they were receptive."

Defenseman Dan Boyle feels McLellan has the Sharks just where they ought to be -- playing extremely well but not peaking too soon.

"Personally, I think he has done a good job," Boyle said. "It's a long season and they (coaching staff) do a good job of not giving us too much information — just enough to push us, but not overdoing it."

McLellan does want to see improvement in two areas. "I'd like to see them a little more consistent and a little more tenacious," he said.

Any more consistent and they'd never lose.

Rookie of the First Half: Drew Doughty, Los Angeles -- Not everyone gets to play with the team they rooted for as a kid, but Drew Doughty is doing just that — and making the most of the opportunity.

"When I was growing up," Doughty said, "I was a big (Wayne) Gretzky fan. That's how I got attracted to the Kings."

On Draft night, he "really wanted to become an L.A. King, but I wasn't sure if they would draft me

"I wasn't expecting to play as many minutes as I am. I thought I'd play about 10 minutes a night. The coaches have shown a lot of faith in me. When I play a lot, I think I play a lot better." -- Drew Doughty
Gretzky is now coaching the Phoenix Coyotes, but Doughty is showing the Kings they made the right call by selecting him with the No. 2 pick in last June's Entry Draft. He's been arguably the best blueliner on a team that has improved by leaps and bounds in its own zone.

"As the games have gone on, I think I've improved every game," Doughty said. "I've learned a lot from our veteran D-men."

Doughty led all rookies with an average of 23:53 in ice time during the first half. He plays in all situations and has contributed 3 goals and 12 points in addition to solid play in his own zone.

"I wasn't expecting to play as many minutes as I am," he said. "I thought I'd play about 10 minutes a night. The coaches have shown a lot of faith in me. When I play a lot, I think I play a lot better."

The Kings feel Doughty is only going to get better.

"We have a lot of confidence in what he brings," coach Terry Murray said. "He's a tremendous talent."

Surprise of the First Half: Loui Eriksson, Dallas -- Not much has gone right for the Stars this season; they got off to a poor start, have struggled to keep the puck out of their own net and endured the Sean Avery saga. But Eriksson, a 23-year-old left wing, has surprised everyone by scoring 21 first-half goals — seven more than his career-high, set last season.

Eriksson's big start included his first NHL hat trick and a stretch in which he scored five consecutive goals for the Stars in a two-game span.

"He's confident in what he's doing out there, he plays in all situations, and he's just a very good player," Stars coach Dave Tippett said. "He's maturing, and you're seeing the results on the ice."

The combination of Eriksson and center Brad Richards has meshed well for the Stars. Prior to Monday's 5-4 overtime win over Detroit, they had combined for 22 points in Dallas' previous nine games. Eriksson had eight goals in that span.

Richards said Eriksson's style of play meshes perfectly with his. The two have learned to read each other to set up scoring chances on give-and-go's and 2-on-1s.

"I like to try and find people, and he's been going to hard areas and tough areas," Richards said. "He's chasing down pucks all the time. I like how he plays both defensively and offensively."

Tippett said Eriksson is playing up to his potential.

"We had Loui penciled in for 20-plus goals, so we knew he had the potential," Tippett said. "He's doing a heck of a job. He's a smart player with relentless work ethic, and he's a guy you can count on to do the job, no matter what."

News and notes -- San Jose defenseman Rob Blake earned his 500th career assist by setting up Patrick Marleau's first-period goal in the Sharks' 4-1 win at Edmonton on Jan. 9. … The Sharks have been dressing defenseman Alexei Semenov as a forward in order to get him some playing time. Coach Todd McLellan says that will continue even with Brad Lukowich out after sports hernia surgery. McLellan was impressed with the play of newcomer Derek Joslin on the blue line and indicated he is likely to remain in the defensive rotation. … The Stars are giving their fans a lot of bonus hockey. Monday's 5-4 overtime victory over Detroit marked the seventh time in 11 games that Dallas played a game in which the score was tied after regulation. The Stars are 5-0-2 in those games. … Rookie forward James Neal was named to the team of first-year players that will compete in the NHL YoungStars Game presented by Upper Deck during All-Star Weekend. Neal has 13 goals in 35 games since joining the Stars, including a hat trick at Toronto two days before Christmas. … The Stars' 3-2 shootout win at Vancouver on Jan. 4 was a tribute to the team's resilience. Dallas lost 4-1 at Edmonton the night before, then had to stay there overnight because of weather and mechanical issues. The Stars didn't get to Vancouver until noon, seven hours before game time, but rallied from a 2-0 deficit before winning on Neal's first career shootout goal. … When Tampa Bay came to Los Angeles on Monday night, it marked the only meeting of the season between No. 1 pick Steven Stamkos of the Lightning and No. 2 pick Drew Doughty of the Kings. While Stamkos has struggled for much of the season, Doughty has established himself as a Calder Trophy candidate. … The Kings were 15-24-2 (32 points) through 41 games last season, this year they were 17-18-6 for 40 points at the halfway mark. However, the second half figures to be tougher: After Thursday's game against Detroit, the Kings have only 12 of their last 39 games at home. …. Phoenix will have to make some adjustments after losing shutdown defenseman Kurt Sauer with a lower body injury that's expected to keep him out for four weeks. David Hale will take his place with Zbynek Michalek. "Sauer has been so strong and solid in a defensive sort of role," coach Wayne Gretzky said. "It is going to be hard to replace those minutes." … Phoenix finally won a game that went past regulation when the Coyotes topped Dallas 1-0 in a shootout on Jan. 10. The Coyotes had been 0-5 in overtime/shootout games before Kyle Turris got the game-winner in the fifth round of the breakaway competition. The win gave the Coyotes a 10-3-1 record in their last 14 games at Arena -- pretty good for a team that 17-20-4 at home last season. … Anaheim rookie Bobby Ryan continues to impress. He was named the NHL's Second Star for the week of Jan. 5-11 after scoring five goals, including a natural hat trick in 2:21 during a 4-3 loss to Los Angeles on Jan. 8. Ryan has 26 points in 26 games since being recalled from Iowa and joining the Ducks on Nov. 16 — the most points of any rookie since then. … Brad May rejoined former Anaheim GM Brian Burke in Toronto when the Ducks sent him to the Maple Leafs for a conditional draft pick on Jan. 7. May had 5 assists in 20 games with Anaheim this season. "He was the best teammate you could ask for," goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere said. "He was really outgoing and he was a friend to everybody and he contributed a lot to the team. He did a job that not many guys want to do and can do, and we’ll miss him for sure."

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