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Sharp shines in return to Hawks' lineup

by Brian Compton
A few thoughts as we prepare to fill out our NCAA hockey brackets:

Pat's all, folks -- All it took to end the Chicago Blackhawks' recent woes was Patrick Sharp's return to the lineup.

After missing the past 16 games with a knee injury, Sharp returned in tremendous fashion with two goals and an assist, leading Chicago to a 4-1 win against the Los Angeles Kings at the United Center. The Blackhawks were 0-3-2 in their previous five games.

''I just wanted to come in and play a strong game; not necessarily worry about scoring goals and making plays, but just play hard and with energy,'' Sharp said. ''Luckily a couple of pucks went in.''

Martin Havlat was certainly glad to have Sharp back. The latter -- who scored a power-play goal in the first period -- picked up the primary assist on Havlat's 23rd goal of the season at 4:23 of the second. The Blackhawks, 4-7-3 in their past 14, opened the scoring for only the second time in their past nine games. Sharp and Havlat both added empty-net tallies late in the third.

''It was great to have him (Sharp) there,'' Havlat said after Chicago ended its longest winless streak of the season. ''His first goal was a beautiful shot. You can see we create more offense with him in the lineup. We need him.''

Feeling special -- It's no secret that special teams always play a huge role in the playoffs. If that's the case again this season, then the Philadelphia Flyers are going to be tough to oust.

Philadelphia, which ranks in the top six of the NHL in both power-play and penalty-kill percentage and also leads the NHL in shorthanded goals, scored twice on the man advantage Sunday afternoon in a 3-1 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Mellon Arena.

''Obviously, (the power play) was big tonight,'' said Philadelphia coach John Stevens, whose team has not allowed a shorthanded goal all season. ''It gives us an early lead, which I thought was important. The penalty kill (also) did an outstanding job.''

The Flyers' power play clicked early, as Simon Gagne scored just 5:29 into the game. Scott Hartnell added one of his own at 2:54 of the second, helping Philadelphia win in Pittsburgh for the first time in six tries.

''They clicked on the power play, they won the power play and the special teams part of the game, which is a big factor,'' Pens interim coach Dan Bylsma said.

Of course, there's a good chance these teams could meet again in the playoffs. Sunday's win gave the No. 4 Flyers a two-point lead on the No. 5 Penguins. Pittsburgh defeated Philadelphia in last year's Eastern Conference Finals.

The Flyers have three games in hand on Pittsburgh.

''It's the regular season; the playoffs are a different beast,'' said Flyers goalie Martin Biron, who made 27 saves. ''We were tight in the standings, so this was a big game.''

Not done yet -- Owen Nolan and Niklas Backstrom kept the Minnesota Wild right in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race Sunday.

Nolan scored twice and Backstrom stopped all 31 shots he faced as the Wild cruised to a 3-0 win against the Edmonton Oilers at Xcel Energy Center. The victory moved Minnesota within one point of the Nashville Predators for the eighth and final playoff spot. The Wild also moved within three of the seventh-seeded Oilers.

"We're in desperate mode right now and have to get everything we can,'' Nolan said. ''Especially playing a team that's within reach, we've got to make sure we close the gap.''

The Oilers outshot Minnesota 15-2 in the first period and repeatedly pressured Backstrom during three power plays. Minnesota rebounded in the second period, snapping off a franchise-record 23 shots. The Wild broke through when Nolan put a rebound past Dwayne Roloson at 14:26.

''We came out and we were tight. Really tight,'' Minnesota coach Jacques Lemaire said. ''Not skating, afraid to make mistakes. We didn't move the puck well. We turned the puck over. Everyone knew we would play better in the second.''

The most exciting part of Sunday's win was the return of forward Marian Gaborik. It was just the seventh appearance of the season for Gaborik, who played the first two games in October, missed two months, played four games in December (scoring twice), and had been out again since just before Christmas after having hip surgery.

Gaborik recorded six shots on goal in just under 18 minutes of ice time.

"I was a little nervous before the game, but as soon as I hit the ice, everything went well,'' he said.

Remembering how to win -- With the New Jersey Devils breathing down their necks, the Boston Bruins reverted to their first-half ways Sunday.

Michael Ryder and Milan Lucic scored on deflections off Devils players past Martin Brodeur, and the Bruins built a five-point lead atop No. 2 New Jersey with a 4-1 win at TD Banknorth Garden. The top-seeded Bruins have nine games left in the regular season, while the Devils have 10 remaining.

''Lately we've been wasting a lot of energy just thinking about getting the win and forgetting how to get the win,'' Boston coach Claude Julien said. ''If you play well enough, the outcome would take care of itself.''

The Bruins were coming off a 3-2 overtime loss to Los Angeles on Thursday night in which saw them waste a two-goal lead in the third period. With Sunday's win, they're now 7-9-4 in their last 20 games after a 39-8-6 start.

''We're not making proclamations that it's all corrected,'' Boston defenseman Aaron Ward said, ''but it's a step in the right direction, especially timing-wise. With all this time off, it's something to build on.''

Too little, too late? -- Here come the Ottawa Senators. But do they have enough time?
The surging Sens got goals from Ryan Shannon and Mike Comrie on Sunday night, as Ottawa ended the New York Rangers' three-game winning streak in a 2-1 decision at Madison Square Garden.

After a horrid start that cost coach Craig Hartsburg his job, the Senators have thrived under Cory Clouston. The victory pulled Ottawa to within seven points of the No. 8 Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference.

''You lose one game here and there, and mathematically you could be out of it,'' said captain Daniel Alfredsson, whose team has reeled off four-straight wins to start a six-game road trip. ''Our approach is to just win every game and keep this positive thing going.''

Alex Auld was sharp between the pipes, as he made three consecutive saves against Markus Naslund at the right post with 2:54 remaining. It was Auld's first win since Feb. 24.

''The last month and half we've shown a real resiliency after giving up first goals or tough goals, and bouncing back from that,'' Auld said. ''Both for myself and for the team, that was big.''

Quack attack -- The Anaheim Ducks are making a late push for the postseason.

Ryan Getzlaf scored a pair of power-play goals in the third period as Anaheim cruised to a 6-2 win against the Phoenix Coyotes at the Honda Center. The Ducks, who scored four power-play goals in all, have won four of their last five games to move within a point of eighth place.

''We're playing desperate hockey right now,'' Getzlaf said. ''The situation is pretty much do or die from here on out. Every night is a playoff game for us, and it's nice to see that we're recognizing the situation we're in. We have a huge game coming up against Nashville on Tuesday, so we just have to continue playing the way we are.

''The games against the teams that we're going to be playing are going to be tough. We've got to get better and play harder, and we're looking forward to the challenge,'' Getzlaf added.

''It was great to have him there. His first goal was a beautiful shot. You can see we create more offense with him in the lineup. We need him.'' -- Blackhawks forward Martin Havlat on the return of teammate Patrick Sharp
Special teams has been a factor in Anaheim's resurgence -- the Ducks have scored seven times in their last 12 opportunities during their past three games. In their previous eight games, they went 1-for-28.

''The power play has been effective for us at times and ineffective at times,'' Getzlaf said. ''This was one of those games that we needed it big-time, and we were able to deliver.''

Back on top -- Just like that, the San Jose Sharks are No. 1 again in the Western Conference.

Milan Michalek scored the eventual winning goal and Evgeni Nabokov stopped 31 shots as San Jose climbed ahead of the idle Detroit Red Wings with a 3-1 win against the Colorado Avalanche at HP Pavilion.

Sharks coach Todd McLellan was proud to see his team respond after losing veteran defenseman Rob Blake to an injury Saturday.

''Considering the bodies (out of the lineup) and the amount of hockey we've played, I was pleased,'' McLellan said. ''It's a good time for our organization when that many players come up and make an impact.''

With their fifth win in six games, the Sharks improved their NHL-leading home record to 30-3-4 and earned their 106th point, two off the team record and one more than Detroit in the NHL standings. Both teams have 10 games left.

And given their success in San Jose this season, the Sharks are obviously gunning for home-ice advantage throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

''For sure we want to finish first, because that gives you the best playoff position,'' Michalek said. ''It's down to the end now, so we've got to try to get every point to be sure we have a chance.''

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