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Sharks 6, Panthers 2 @NHLdotcom

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) - The San Jose Sharks are starting to think they got two superstars in last week's big trade with Boston.

Joe Thornton has been even better than his teammates imagined - and his arrival also has spurred Patrick Marleau to the best hockey of his NHL career.

Marleau had his fourth straight three-point game, Mark Smith scored two goals, and the Sharks remained unbeaten with Thornton in the lineup, trouncing the weary Florida Panthers 6-2 Thursday night.

Thornton had two assists, giving him eight points in four games since coming over from the Bruins. His effect on his new club has been nothing short of stunning: San Jose, which lost 10 straight before Thornton's arrival, has scored at least five goals in four consecutive victories for the first time in franchise history.

But the Sharks are even more impressed by Marleau, who had a goal and two assists. He has been dominant since Thornton became his power-play teammate and a deterrent to opponents wishing to stack their top defenders against the captain, whose 12 points in four games also are a franchise record.

"We're playing with a lot more confidence, and we're getting some of the breaks that we weren't getting," said Smith, who had the first multi-goal game of his career. "But what can you say about Patty Marleau? He's elevated his game to a whole new level that I haven't seen before."

Thornton clearly makes everyone in teal look better, and not just because of his impressive puck control and passing, which set up Marleau's power-play goal and then cousin Scott Thornton's tally with 2:01 to play.

Though he's only 26, Joe Thornton's presence brings a confidence San Jose's youth-dominated lineup lacked this season - and that poise showed during a phenomenal four-goal second period.

"(Thornton and Marleau) are moving up the ladder in a hurry," Sharks coach Ron Wilson said. "They're making a statement as far as the Canadian Olympic team goes. Patty's playing the best hockey I've ever seen from him. He has 12 points, and he should have 20. It's fun to watch."

Alyn McCauley, Scott Thornton and promising rookie Grant Stevenson also scored as the Sharks got back to .500 (12-12-4). McCauley has a six-game scoring streak.

"It's just a combination of some new linemates and everybody playing together," said Marleau, who has thrived with McCauley's recent addition to his line. "We've got that sense of urgency back that we were lacking. (The trade) definitely shook things up, but Joe's linemates are a big part of it, too."

Evgeni Nabokov also had a sharp night after missing the last two games with a groin injury, making 34 saves for his second straight victory after his 10-game winless streak.

Stephen Weiss and Jozef Stumpel scored for the Panthers, who could hardly be blamed for looking sluggish at the tail end of one of the NHL's most brutal back-to-back road assignments.

Florida lost 4-3 at Dallas on Wednesday night - and then their plane sat on the runway for deicing before it could leave Texas. After a 3 1/2-hour flight, the Panthers got to their hotel in California around 6 a.m.

"We wanted to have a good start, like 15 shots, and we almost reached that goal - then all of a sudden, it's 5-1," captain Olli Jokinen said. "Especially, Marleau was tremendous. He beat us two against one. They outplayed us in the second period, and that was the game."

San Jose couldn't score during a two-man advantage for 71 seconds early in the second period, but Smith slipped a rebound past Jamie McLennan moments after the power plays ended for his fourth goal. Smith struck again less than 4 minutes later, flipping a shot over McLennan's shoulder.

After Marleau's power-play goal, Stevenson capped the rally with his eighth point in eight NHL games.

"It's disappointing, that's all I can say," defenseman Mike Van Ryn said. "It wasn't a good night for the goalie."

McLennan stopped just 18 shots, but coach Jacques Martin never pulled him in favor of Roberto Luongo, who was yanked from Wednesday's loss.

Notes: The game featured the top four picks in the 1997 NHL draft: Thornton (No. 1 to Boston), Marleau (No. 2 to San Jose), Jokinen (No. 3 to Los Angeles) and Luongo (No. 4 to the New York Islanders). What's more, Sharks D Scott Hannan was the 22nd pick in that draft. ... Stumpel, a 12th-year pro who once had a 79-point campaign, got his first goal in 29 games this season. ... Sharks rookie Josh Langfeld had two assists.

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