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Pre-season Stanley Cup favourite Sharks trying to find their game

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SAN JOSE, Calif. - There are six pucks sitting side by side on a mantle in head coach Ron Wilson's office at the San Jose Sharks practice facility. They're from each playoff victory last spring. There was plenty of room to add 10 more, but a second-round collapse to the Detroit Red Wings halted the collection.

Will there be more pucks this spring? The Sharks were the pick of many to win the Stanley Cup this season but two months into the season that billing has yet to be justified.

"I think we still are amongst the best teams in the NHL," star Sharks centre Joe Thornton said Wednesday. "I feel when we're confident and playing our best, there aren't too many teams that can compete with us. That's the raw deal. But we just haven't been getting it from everybody right now, we haven't been consistent.

"We've got a lot of room to improve but we'll get there this year."

Thornton opened the scoring Wednesday night but the Sharks dropped a 3-2 shootout decision to the Los Angeles Kings. They're 11-8-4 on the season. Not bad by any means but not close to where they thought they'd be after 23 games.

"We've just been pretty inconsistent," said winger Mike Grier. "A lot of nights we just expected our talent to do the job and we haven't put in the effort and done the little things that it takes to win games. We've started to get better at it but we've still got a ways to go."

Added Sharks GM Doug Wilson: "If you did a progress report on our team, it wouldn't be where it needs to be on an individual basis or a collective basis."

Ron Wilson put his team through one of their hardest practices of the season this week. Then he sent a message Wednesday night, making healthy scratches of winger Steve Bernier and veteran defenceman Kyle McLaren. For McLaren it was a first since coming over in a trade from Boston in January 2003.

More is expected from this talented team, but at the same time...

"People still fail to realize that we're the second youngest team in the league," said Ron Wilson. "Hey, some idiot said to me the other day, if you guys don't win this year, is it time to break up the team? Break up the team? We're putting ourselves in position. We have a lot of things we still have to learn. We have new experiences to gain. We're going to be patient.

"It's not what everybody's expectations are. It's 'we'll win when we're ready to win."'

Wilson's job security is a recurring theme among some NHL insiders even though his GM Doug Wilson has been on record saying coaching would not be the first place he'd look if a change was needed.

The coach knows what's being written.

"What's said in the media is not what's said behind closed doors," said Wilson. "I know where I stand and what's going on."

Goals have been hard to come by, the Sharks 18th in the league at 2.59 per game before Wednesday. On the flip side, however, they were second in the NHL with only 2.09 goals against per game. The latter tells Wilson that the players are buying into what he's selling.

"The only way you can play defence is have the team committed to doing something," said Wilson. "So if I've lost the whole team why are we playing so well defensively?"

The kind of pre-season hype that San Jose received can be a two-edge sword. On one hand it's complimentary to have one's talent recognized. On the other, it can be dangerous if players begin reading their own clippings.

"Guys I'm sure have read it somewhere," defenceman Craig Rivet said of the pre-season predictions. "But I don't think that's been a major focus for us. Right now we're not where we want to be. I think this team definitely has the capability to get where we want to be. The season is still young but we really have to start focusing on being a top team right now. We've had some discussions over the last few weeks. There's still things we need to improve on. Once we iron that out we're going to be a pretty solid team."

Veteran centre Jeremy Roenick definitely believes the Sharks remain a serious Cup contender.

"I still think we have a team that can do that," said Roenick. "Adversity is a good thing to go through, growing pains. I think a lot of guys in this room have to be challenged and maybe that challenge is going to propel this team further. Our mental toughness is being questioned right now and I think it's up to a lot of us to bring that out. If that does come out and we do go on a roll, this team could be very, very tough to beat because of what we're going through right now.

"We're playing really good hockey but we just can't score goals. And some guys have to lay it on the line a little bit harder. That being said, we still have a phenomenal hockey team, a team that does have a better-than-average chance to win the Cup."

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