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Sharks look toward Western Conference Finals

by Rick Sadowski
SAN JOSE, Calif. – Maybe now the San Jose Sharks finally have purged their reputation as postseason underachievers.

Maybe now star forwards Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau can go about their business in relative peace without hearing or reading about their inability to come up big when the games are the most important.


"Who knows, who knows," Thornton said. "We want to win the next series – we will win the next series, hopefully -- and then I think everybody will be kind of quiet. But for now it's a nice feeling."

Thornton and Marleau, who took some heat even after the Sharks defeated the Colorado Avalanche in the opening round of this year's playoffs, came through in the clutch and played instrumental roles in San Jose's five-game triumph over the Detroit Red Wings in the second round to advance to the Western Conference finals for the first time since facing the Calgary Flames in 2004.

The Sharks will play Chicago or Vancouver for the right to compete in the Stanley Cup Final – the Hawks have a chance to wrap up their series at home on Sunday night. San Jose went 1-1-2 against the Blackhawks in the regular season and 3-1-0 against the Canucks.

"We're going to face a new team and new challenges," goalie Evgeni Nabokov said. "It's going to get harder. We'll see what's going to happen in the other series and get back to work.

"Yes, it is satisfying to be here, I'm not going to lie. I remember the feeling when we played against Calgary. It was a great feeling and I'm happy to get back. We'll just have to fight through again and see what happens."

The Sharks will be counting on more big performances from players like Thornton, Marleau and Joe Pavelski, who had 4 goals and 3 assists against Detroit.

Thornton had 3 goals and 5 assists against the Red Wings and will take a six-game point-scoring streak into the next round.

"He was very determined," Sharks captain Rob Blake said. "He wants to be the best player, and he is the best player on this team. He's showing it right now."

The 6-foot-4, 230-pounder, who had rarely lived up to his nickname "Jumbo" in the postseason, scored the winning goal in Game 2 and set up Marleau for the decisive goals in Games 3 and 5.

"Right from the first game I felt great," said Thornton, who also won 10 of 14 faceoffs in Saturday's 2-1 series-clinching win. "I felt confident, and I just rode it the entire series."

The soft-spoken Marleau, who has spent his entire 12-season NHL career with the Sharks, had a goal and two assists in six games against the Avalanche. A nasty flu bug prevented him from playing in the series opener against the Red Wings, after which he scored his two game-winning goals and two assists.

"Patty's been playing well for us in the past also," Nabokov said. "I think we've all had those types of games where we didn't put the stats on the board and stuff like that. I've always believed it's not three, four or five guys. Look at the way the (Pavelski) line is playing. I mean, they had a big impact in two series. And Jumbo and Patty. You can talk about the penalty killers, Manny Malhotra and Scotty Nichol. You can go on and on and on.

"In order to win, that's what it's going to take. It's going to take 26 guys to win."

The Sharks have won seven of eight games since their stunning Game 3 loss to the Avalanche, when Colorado rookie Ryan O'Reilly tipped San Jose defenseman Dan Boyle's attempt to clear the puck around the boards behind Nabokov for a 1-0 overtime win.

That game brought back memories of last season's first-round loss to Anaheim after the Sharks had won the Presidents' Trophy as the regular-season champions. Instead, they've stepped up their game.

"Hockey's a funny, funny sport," Thornton said. "To think three weeks ago that happened and now … it's a little bizarre, but it just shows that we have a pretty darned good team. We can stick with it with mental toughness.

"We've been down. We were down 2-1 in that series. But we were never concerned and we never panicked. That just shows the experience and the leadership that we have in this room."

Second-year Sharks coach Todd McLellan called his team's win against the Red Wings "very, very big" for a number of reasons, not the least of which was shedding "some of that reputation that we have supposedly earned in the past."

"We want to win the next series – we will win the next series, hopefully – and then I think everybody will be kind of quiet. But for now it’s a nice feeling."            -- Joe Thornton
McLellan added that "some individuals" needed to answer some postseason questions – referring mainly to Thornton, Marleau and Nabokov.

"To this point, they've done it," McLellan said. "I think as some of the questions were asked in the outside world, it motivated us as well."

Blake, who won a Stanley Cup with the Avalanche in 2001, said people might not understand how difficult it is to win at this level in postseason play.

"Everybody thinks it's easy to win, but these guys come and compete," he said. "We've been pretty straightforward from Day One of this season, that the franchise and organization might not have had as much success as they wanted in the playoffs. But it's not easy to win the Stanley Cup. This team, we decided it's our job to come out and do what we can, and when we do that we've got a chance.

"This is where we wanted to be. We wanted to be in this spot for playoffs. There's four teams left in the NHL, and that's right where we want to be. But we're only halfway done."

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