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Relaxed Marleau delivering in playoffs

by Larry Wigge

Patrick Marleau helped the Sharks rally from a 2-1 deficit to even the series against the Flames at two games apiece. VIDEO
You don't know how long fans of the San Jose Sharks had waited to hear the words.

"Put me right back out there, coach."

Captain Patrick Marleau, who was vilified by fans and media alike as being invisible since last year's playoffs began, stood on the Sharks' bench. He was bloodied above the right eye from a check into the boards by the Flames' Dion Phaneuf early in Game 4 and bleeding from the nose after he was sent flying on an open-ice bodycheck by Cory Sarich later in the game. And he was demanding more. More ice time from coach Ron Wilson.

Courage? Leadership? Guts? Determination? This moment. This drama. It was all of the above as Wilson kept putting Marleau out there for a team-high 23 minutes, 53 seconds.

It wasn't as dramatic or heroic as Willis Reed limping onto the court to help the New York Knicks win Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers or Kirk Gibson's ninth-inning, pinch-homer off Dennis Eckersley for the Los Angeles Dodgers against the Oakland A's in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. But it helped slow down those finger pointers, those skeptics.

The moment of truth had arrived, and Marleau stood up and helped the Sharks rally from a 2-1 deficit on third-period goals by Jonathan Cheechoo and Joe Thornton for a 3-2 victory to even the series against the Calgary Flames at two games apiece.

Tonight (10 p.m. ET, CBC, RIS), the winner advances, the loser goes home.

"He's our leader," Thornton said with enthusiasm. "He could barely see out of one eye and he's out there playing his heart out."

Two nights later, Marleau again set the pace with a goal with just 1:53 left in the second period to give the Sharks a 2-1 lead and then set up Cheechoo for what proved to be the winning goal in a 4-3 triumph.

It's that irresistibly incredible combination of size, strength, speed and skill that Patrick brings to the game that everyone wants to see every night -- not just once in a while.

Truth be told, this 28-year-old native of tiny Aneroid, Saskatchewan (population 56) is a shy, quiet leader who cares dearly about his teammates. His mental toughness is part of the consistency he has shown in San Jose since becoming the Sharks' first pick, second overall, in the 1997 Entry Draft to Thornton (who was Boston's pick that year) and stepped right into the NHL.

So often, however, conflict surrounds players who have the most to show us. I remember standing outside the Sharks' dressing room in Nashville for the first round of the playoffs last year talking to a confident Marleau, who was coming off a 32-goal season that followed a 2006 playoff run that included nine goals in 11 games and six in the first round against the same Predators.

He was remembering a boy's desire.

"I'll never forget shoveling the snow off the dugout so my brother and I could skate after school," he said, recalling a patch of ice on his family's 1,600-acre grain farm. "I'll never forget going to town rink, where the manager, a guy we called Tony Zamboni, would let us in. I'll never forget waking up one Christmas and getting an autographed Mario Lemieux hockey stick and a hockey tape authored by Super Mario."

It was at this point I asked him about that tape.

"It's still over at my parent's house," he said with a smile. "I must have played it a thousand times."

This is the same stand-up kid who went back to that farm when the lockout canceled the 2004-05 season and he did his best to help his ailing father.

"I went home and did all the chores I did as a kid ... and more," he recalled. "I drove the grain truck and lots more. My dad needed help with the harvest ... and I didn't know if there was going to be a season or not. Being there -- helping my folks -- was something I needed to do."

He smiled, shook his head and then added ... "Actually, it was harder than I remembered. I only lasted a little more than a week."

But Patrick Marleau is not allergic to hard work.

"It's funny, but I remember watching this kid with so much potential, so many skills, as a junior player," Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson said. "We were sold on his character and the type of person he was, but the total package is what we drafted. And nine years later, I see a man who has evolved into a great leader, a dominant player -- and he's only 27. More than that, he cares about his wife, his son, his family and everyone around him."

Little did this quiet, driven family man with a great small-town work ethic know that his world was about to take a U-turn.

Patrick scored just three goals in last year's playoffs. That's when the finger-pointing started. Also the rumors that had him going to Montreal, Edmonton, Nashville, Florida and so on. A new contract didn't slow down the rumors.

Marleau let the speculation eat him alive and reduce his effectiveness -- 11 goals and 20 assists in his first 59 games -- on the ice. Until he finally saw the trade deadline come and go Feb. 28.

Days later, I remember meeting him again -- this time in the hallway outside the Sharks' dressing room in St. Louis. He was trying to smile and laugh about it, but couldn't.

"I can't explain it," Marleau said. "I've worked harder and harder, but ..."

Short sentences. Stumbling to explain the how and why of the worst slump of his career.

"All I remember is sitting in the locker room just before 3 o'clock in Columbus, eating a sandwich with the guys and someone said the deadline had passed," Marleau said. "I remember looking around the room, seeing the guys, seeing what a good group this is. It was a comfortable feeling."

Just a little bit of reality. Comfort. And his confidence was back.

"We were sold on his character and the type of person he was, but the total package is what we drafted." - Sharks GM Doug Wilson
Doug Wilson and Ron Wilson both had been at a loss. They wanted... no, they needed their captain/leader, if the Sharks were to make a run in this year's playoffs.

"Doug and I sat Patty down a while back and we told him he wasn't going to be traded. Not to worry," Ron Wilson said later. "But his psyche was so fragile from hearing all the rumors and speculation that I guess he didn't want to believe us until the trade deadline officially passed. Then, it was like magic, he snapped out of it."

The magic included eight goals and nine assists in the last 19 games, including two game-winning goals. Plus, two goals and four assists in the first six games of the first round of the playoffs.

"Since the deadline, Patty has been more relaxed," Ron Wilson added. "He's skating harder. There were times this season when he was standing around out there, times I'd kind of smack myself on the head and say. Why?"

And that brings us to the playoffs. Invisible? Playoff dud? I think not.

This is the same Patrick Marleau whose 21 playoff goals since 2003-04 are second most in the NHL. This is the same Marleau whose assist in Game 2 pushed him past Igor Larionov, with 22, for the all-time Sharks playoff record.

Still sporting a black left eye and a nose with several shades of black and blue, Patrick Marleau remembered a conversation he had with Thornton about playoffs and perceptions.

"I remember Joe telling me what he went through in Boston. The finger-pointing. The accusations. The ugly words," Marleau added. "I guess it comes with experience and the fact that everyone's under a microscope in the playoffs because so much is expected of you as an individual ... and a team."

The slings and arrows could only serve to make Patrick mentally tougher. Then, you might say, those two big hits, made him more determined.

"Put me right back out there, coach."

Courage? Leadership? Guts? Determination? This moment. This drama.

I'd say Patrick Marleau is truly caught up in all of the emotion and passion of the game like he was when he was a kid looking to borrow the key from Tony Zamboni back in Aneroid, Saskatchewan, to get in some extra ice time, wouldn't you?

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