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Pacific: Sharks happy to be back in their home tank

by John Kreiser
The San Jose Sharks are glad to be home after an Eastern trip they'd rather forget.

Not that they came home empty-handed: The Sharks knocked off the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Bruins, lost once in overtime and twice in a shootout for three more points, and barely lost in the trip's finale at New Jersey, dropping a 6-5 decision that was one of the most entertaining games played in the NHL this season.

"I think we deserved better," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said of the trip. "We're going home with five of 10 points and we had a chance for 10 of 10, and we were right there again tonight. It's a mistake here, a save there that makes a difference, and we are not getting them offensively or defensively. We have to tighten up in a couple of areas."

Also, the Sharks hope a return to the Bay Area will give them a chance to heal up after a trip full of injuries and illness.

Most of the Sharks had Monday off before Edmonton came to town Tuesday for the opener of a three-game homestand. The Sharks hope the day off will rejuvenate the team.

"We want to get healthy," backup goaltender Brian Boucher said. "We had a sickness going around the team and then we were all on the same plane together. It was next to impossible to get the results we wanted on the trip. We’ll get healthy and get rolling on all cylinders."

The Sharks are 4-2-4 in their last 10 games and still lead the Western Conference by one point over Detroit with three games in hand. They trail Boston by three points in the race for the Presidents' Trophy and also have three games in hand.

"We still want to be playing our best hockey down the stretch," Boucher said. "At the end of the day, you have to look at the big picture."

San Jose's veterans know the season is a marathon, not a sprint -- and that a little adversity now can be beneficial down the road.

"The hills and peaks don't define a team," assistant coach Jay Woodcroft said. "It's the valleys and how you get through them. A little adversity can bring a team together."

Third time's the charm -- One reason for the Dallas Stars' improvement after a dreadful start has been a vastly improved defense. One reason for the defensive improvement has been the return of defenseman Darryl Sydor.

The Stars brought Sydor back for a third hitch in Dallas on Nov. 16, acquiring him from Pittsburgh in a deal that sent Philippe Boucher to the Penguins. At that point, the Stars were 6-8-3 and while they went 1-3-1 in their next five games following Sydor's arrival, they have been 21-10-3 since, the fourth-best record in the NHL during that span.

Most important, the Stars, who surrendered 81 goals in their first 22 games (an average of 3.68 per game), have cut their goals-against dramatically, allowing 87 during the last 33 contests (2.63 per game). They've climbed from last in the West to fifth after Monday's 3-2 shootout win at Columbus.

For the 36-year-old Sydor, who joined the Stars for the third time in his 17-year career after having left as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2007, the trade was a happy homecoming.

"Very excited to come back, obviously,” said Sydor, who ranks fifth in Dallas history with 685 games played, third with 262 assists and sixth with 330 points. "Even though it's the third time, it feels like I never left, like a lot of the norm. I'm excited to be back."

Sydor had been a healthy scratch with the Penguins 10 times in 18 games early this season. But with the Stars, he's been the perfect partner for second-year defenseman Matt Niskanen, providing steady defense, a solid veteran presence and impressive leadership.

"He's been a strong influence in the dressing room and on the ice," coach Dave Tippett told the team's Web site. "We talked lately a lot how he's really stabilized Niskanen; he's made Nisky's game come up a long ways. Sometimes just a veteran guy can do that. It's his personality as well as his play that has been real strong for us. They have been a very good pair for us."

Sydor has a history of winning. He was a key member of the Stars' 1999 Stanley Cup championship team and the squad that went back to the Final in 2000. He also contributed to Tampa Bay's 2004 Cup winners and has been to the Final with Los Angeles in 1993 and Pittsburgh last spring.

Not-so-sweet home -- The Los Angeles Kings came back from their five-game Eastern swing with eight of a possible 10 points -- and were a bad two minutes in Montreal from sweeping all five games. It was their best five-game trip since 2002, when they also went 4-1.

"We went into some very difficult buildings to play in," coach Terry Murray said after the Kings capped the trip with a 4-3 shootout win against the New York Islanders. "I like the way we're coming together. We're a very young hockey club. We're trying to figure this game out, digging in every night, and it's a tremendous way of challenging the team when you go on the road like this."

Maybe it's a good thing the Kings spent most of the previous eight weeks of the season on the road. They came home from the trip and went without a win in three games, falling 2-0 to Calgary and losing a pair of shootouts, 3-2 to Edmonton and 7-6 to Atlanta.

The most frustrating loss was against Calgary, in which the Kings dominated play all night -- they out-shot the Flames 36-20 -- but couldn't beat Miikka Kiprusoff. Ex-King Mike Cammalleri scored a first-period power-play goal, and Kiprusoff made it stand up until Rene Bourque scored into an empty net in the final minute.

"Those are games that you have to find a way to win" Murray said. "You’re making a push to make the playoffs and a win puts you one point back of getting over that threshold and getting into that top group and you have to find a way to do it. We played hard -- historically the first home game is a very difficult one after a road trip -- but the effort, the work side of it, the structure and the system was great, but the part that was missing, when you have a goaltender that's as good as Kiprusoff is, you have to make life more difficult for him."

The Kings begin another five-game trip Feb. 24 and have a six-game swing from March 19-28. In all, they play 19 of their last 27 games away from Staples Center. 

Sunday night-mare story -- The sellout crowd that came to the Honda Center on Sunday probably thought they'd see an easy Anaheim victory against one of the NHL's weakest teams. Instead, they and the Ducks left the building shell-shocked after an 8-4 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers, the team with the second-fewest points in the League.
"We're going home with five of 10 points and we had a chance for 10 of 10, and we were right there again tonight. It's a mistake here, a save there that makes a difference, and we are not getting them offensively or defensively. We have to tighten up in a couple of areas." -- Sharks coach Todd McLellan

It was a nightmare almost from the opening faceoff. The Thrashers scored early, often and in almost every way possible. The Ducks allowed two power-play goals and a pair of shorthanded goals, the last one into an empty net. Atlanta captain Ilya Kovalchuk needed just 6:51 of the second period to get a hat trick that gave the Thrashers a 6-1 lead.

"Everything that you don't want to happen, happened," Ducks captain Scott Niedermayer said. "We made our share of mistakes and they scored their share of goals. I guess those nights do happen once in a while. Unfortunately, we can't afford that right now. That is the worst part of it."

The loss continued the Ducks' puzzling pattern of struggling against some of the NHL's weakest teams. Since the start of 2009 portion of the schedule, the Ducks have lost to the Thrashers and Tampa Bay Lightning at home and dropped a 2-1 decision at the New York Islanders.

Losing to the NHL's three weakest teams is no way to make the playoffs in a conference as tightly packed as the West.

"Those are ones that you bang your head against the wall and you try to figure out how we could perform to the level we performed," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said after Sunday's loss. "It just seemed that we didn’t have anything going in a lot of areas. We tried to battle back, but we just got frustrated. Pucks bounced away form us in every situation. We started to do too much as individuals and just feed their attack."

Ice chips -- The San Jose Sharks played last Friday at Buffalo after the Sabres turned down an offer by the NHL to postpone the game following a plane crash that killed 50 people. The plane went down in a Buffalo suburb that is home to many of the Sabres. The Sharks overcame a 4-1 deficit only to take a 5-4 lead, but Buffalo tied the game, 5-5, by scoring with four seconds remaining; they won in a shootout. "It was an entertaining game," coach Todd McLellan said. "Anybody who came here probably got their mind off very serious issues." ... The Sharks became the first team this season to beat Boston by more than two goals when they scored four times in the third period for a 5-2 victory Feb. 10. Ex-Bruin Joe Thornton had an empty-netter to wrap up the win, and assisted on four goals in the game at Buffalo and two more in the loss to New Jersey. ... The Atlanta Thrashers set a record for the most goals scored in back-to-back games in Southern California by getting 14 (plus a shootout goal) in an 8-4 win against the Anaheim Ducks and 7-6 shootout victory against the Los Angeles Kings. Before that, the record was 12, held by Detroit and Pittsburgh. ... Anaheim's 8-4 loss to Atlanta represented the most goals allowed by the Ducks since an 8-0 loss to the Dallas Stars in 2001. ... The Kings sent consecutive games into overtime by scoring power-play, sixth-attacker goals against Edmonton and Atlanta. However, they lost both games in shootouts. ... Valentine's Day is a day for lovers, not Kings. Los Angeles is just 4-11-6 all-time on Valentine's Day, including this year's 3-2 shootout loss to Edmonton. They played on Feb. 14 for the first time in 1968, but didn't get their first Valentine's Day win until 1979, a 3-2 victory against Detroit that represented their eighth game on Feb. 14.  Before this season, the Kings last played on Valentine's Day on Feb. 14, 2001, a 4-2 loss at Dallas; they last won on Feb. 14 in 2000, a 4-3 overtime win against Calgary. ... Dallas' 3-2 shootout win at Columbus on Monday gave the Stars points in each of their last 11 trips to Nationwide Arena; they're 9-0-2 in their last 11 visits to Columbus. ... Stars forward Loui Eriksson has to be sad the Stars have finished their season series with the Blue Jackets; he had five goals in the four games, including the tying goal Monday. ... The last couple of Saturday nights haven't been kind to the Phoenix Coyotes. They've surrendered seven goals in each game, losing 7-2 to Carolina and 7-5 to Calgary. ... Shane Doan's goal in the loss to Calgary was his 22nd of the season and moved him past Paul MacLean into sole possession of fourth place on the Winnipeg/Phoenix franchise's all-time goals list with 249.

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

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