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Sharks eye Pacific crown as they challenge Wild

by Adam Kimelman
SHARKS (47-20-10) at WILD (37-34-6)
Last 10: San Jose 4-6-0; Minnesota 5-5-0
Season series:
This is the fourth and final game between the teams this season. The Sharks won the first three, including a 4-1 win in Minnesota on March 23 that snapped a six-game losing streak. Sharks forward Patrick Marleau has 4 goals and 7 points in the first three games.
Big Story: Can the Sharks continue to put distance between themselves and the Coyotes for the Pacific Division title? A win Friday plus a win Sunday against Colorado, combined with a Phoenix loss to Edmonton on Saturday would give San Jose the division.
Can the Wild keep their flickering playoff hopes alive? They need a win and an Avalanche loss to keep from being mathematically eliminated.
Team Scope:

Sharks -- San Jose got good news going into the final two weeks of the season, as center Joe Thornton should return after missing the last two games with a lower-body injury. He skated with the team at Thursday's practice, his first time on the ice since he was hurt last Saturday.
"It felt a little sore but that's probably normal," Thornton told the team's Web site. "It is feeling better every day."
Thornton has a goal and 2 assists in three games against the Wild this season, and is second in the League with 66 assists, and eighth with 85 points.

Wild -- Calling it the angriest and most disappointed he's been with his team all season following a 4-0 loss to the Blackhawks on Wednesday, coach Todd Richards took away the pucks from his players Thursday. They did a few drills, then skated for 10-15 straight minutes, at which point Richards ordered them off the ice.
"We can't have the type of performance we had (Wednesday) and show up for work the next day and go about our business like nothing happened,'' Richards told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "If we didn't have a game (Friday), we'd still be on the ice right now. We still have to leave the rink today thinking about (Wednesday's) game and having a better understanding of what we need to do (Friday). At this stage of the season, you don't want to be dealing with this, but we can't have the type of performance we had (Wednesday).''
Who's Hot --
Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle has 2 goals and 6 points in his last four games. His 15 goals are tied for second among NHL defensemen, and his 56 points are third. … Wild captain Mikko Koivu has 2 goals and 9 points in his last eight games. He's tied his career-high of 20 goals with five games left.
Injury Report --
Thornton wasn't the only key forward back at practice Thursday. Ryan Clowe, who left Wednesday's game against the Stars early after being hit by a puck up high, should play Friday. Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic (knee) also practiced and is probable for the Wild game.
Wild defenseman Cam Barker (ankle) practiced Wednesday and hopes to get medical clearance to play Friday. Forwards Owen Nolan and Martin Havlat and defenseman Marek Zidlicky sat out practice Thursday as maintenance days, but all should be available for Friday's game.
Stat Pack --
The Sharks certainly hope to have Clowe back in the lineup. The big forward has 4 goals and 10 points in his last 11 games, and has 9 points in 11 career games against the Wild.
Puck Drop --
Despite his team most likely missing the playoffs, Wild owner Craig Leipold is happy with the direction of the team under first-year GM Chuck Fletcher and first-year coach Richards.
"Chuck has a strategy," Leipold told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "We talk constantly. He's the kind of guy that will take us to the next level. Todd, as a new coach with a new system, (it) took us a little longer than we had hoped to get the players used to the new system. We had a tough first month; after that first month, I thought we've been playing really, really well.
"So, I like the changes that we made, and I think that it really puts us in a good position for next year. Absolutely, no question, and we talk about that internally."

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