SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) - Patrick Marleau is right where he wants to be: Outside the spotlight trained on Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo, yet still scoring big goals and leading the San Jose Sharks to important victories.
Marleau scored two goals and Vesa Toskala stopped 16 shots in the Sharks' 4-1 victory over the Nashville Predators in Game 3 on Tuesday night, putting San Jose up 2-1 in the best-of-seven series.
The Sharks went ahead on rookie Steve Bernier's first playoff goal late in the second period, and NHL goal-scoring champion Cheechoo also scored in the third as fifth-seeded San Jose moved halfway to the second round with its second straight hard-nosed victory despite no points from Thornton, the league's leading scorer.
They survived Nashville's latest impressive defensive game thanks to Marleau, the longest-tenured Shark who's thriving while centering a line with two rookies. Marleau shuns attention, but the Predators might be wise to turn some of their focus on Thornton over to the captain in teal.
"He's the captain, he's a veteran, and when you see him play like he's playing right now, you just have to follow him," said Bernier, Marleau's right wing. "It's tough to follow the way he plays, but Patty is leading the way for all the team."
As usual, Marleau had no interest in evaluating himself. He was much more impressed with San Jose's gritty game of offensive keep-away against Paul Kariya and the Predators, who have just two goals in the last 160 minutes since their three-goal first period in the series opener.
"We want to play them in their end and always have the puck and start making plays in their zone," said Marleau, whose Sharks outshot Nashville 40-17. "When we're successful, we get results like this."
Defenseman Christian Ehrhoff had three assists for the Sharks, who lost their final four home playoff games during their run to the Western Conference finals in 2004. Game 4 is Thursday night at the sold-out Shark Tank, with Game 5 back in Nashville on Sunday.
Cheechoo and Marleau both scored on shots that probably should have been stopped by Chris Mason, the Predators' backup goalie thrust into the playoffs two weeks ago when Tomas Vokoun was sidelined with blood clots. With Mason's inexperience finally showing despite his 36 saves, Toskala's steady play was even more impressive in both goalies' third career playoff starts.
Kimmo Timonen scored a short-handed goal in the first period for the Predators, who have done excellent work against Thornton despite a raft of penalties called for their defense on the Sharks' superstar.
"He protects the puck very well, but I'm starting to look at those penalties, and they're pretty weak," coach Barry Trotz said. "But they are penalties, if you want to go the letter of the law. On some of them, I'm not exactly sure what the rules are. They're different rules for him, I guess."
The Predators managed just nine shots in the first 35 minutes, but they were relentlessly physical with Thornton, who won his first scoring title this season with 125 points.
Nashville sent a defender after Thornton every time he touched the puck, never content to sit back watching out for his expert passes. Thornton couldn't exploit the defense's holes in his small windows of opportunity.
"He's the best player in the league, but we have a couple of lines who are capable of going at him," Nashville center Scott Nichol said. "We're just trying to take away as many of his options as we can."
But Bernier put the Sharks ahead with 1:12 left in the second period when Ehrhoff's shot ricocheted off defenseman Dan Hamhuis and went directly to the rookie wing, who flipped it home.
After the Sharks killed two Nashville power plays in the third period, Cheechoo scored on a shot near the blue line with 4:22 to play, slipping the puck through Mason's pads. But there was nothing cheap about Marleau's second goal just 67 seconds later: He split two defensemen and deked Mason to the ice before firing it home.
Nashville won the series opener 4-3 with four power-play goals, but San Jose tied it up with three power-play goals of its own in a Game 2 shutout.
Marleau tied it midway through the second period, skating unimpeded to the right circle and ripping a stoppable shot past Mason for his second goal of the series.
Notes: Former Sharks captain Owen Nolan, who still lives in the area and owns a local bar, attended the game. Nolan, who missed the season with injuries, hasn't announced where he'll play next year. ... Toskala was sharp, making an exceptional pad save on Nashville's 2-on-1 break late in the second period. Evgeni Nabokov, who has played in 34 postseason games for the Sharks, has been relegated to backup duty ever since getting a minor abdominal injury after his strong play at the Olympics. ... San Jose has outshot Nashville in all three games of the series.