By Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Senior Writer
San Jose forward Jonathan Cheechoo understands he led a charmed life last season. Now, he is just trying to recapture the magic.
The arrival of Joe Thornton
in San Jose -- an unexpected surprise last November after a blockbuster trade between the Sharks and Bruins -- catapulted Cheechoo almost overnight from a player with an unlimited future to a superstar in the here-and-now.
Capitalizing on the amazing and immediate chemistry shared with Thornton, a crafty, pass-first pivot, Cheechoo, a shoot-first, ask-questions-later right winger, started scoring goals in bunches as soon as the two players were put together.
Teammate Patrick Marleau
says the symbiotic relationship forged by the two players was breathtaking in both its simplicity and brutal effectiveness. When all was said and done last season, Cheechoo had a League-leading 56 goals, double his previous career best. Thornton had a League-best 125 points and was voted the Hart Trophy as the League's Most Valuable Player.
"He and Joe clicked last year and it was something special to watch," said Marleau. "Just how (Cheechoo) evolved, working hard all the time. He's always had a pretty quick shot and been able to get to scoring areas and you end up with a guy like Joe and he scores 56 goals".
Cheechoo also earned his first All-Star appearance, an honor he enjoyed last month as a member of the victorious Western Conference squad at the 2007 NHL All-Star Game in Dallas.
"It's an unbelievable experience," Cheechoo said while basking in the Dallas spotlight. "My dad came in early for this and he's like 'Did you see Joe Sakic, did you see this guy, did you see that guy?' It's exciting just to be involved in this type of game."
Exciting, sure. But is it intimidating?
"I wouldn't say intimidated, just more so exciting to be around these great guys. It's fun to just be in that atmosphere."
It also proved to be a brief respite from Cheechoo's struggles for much of this season.
Unlike last season, Cheechoo is not on pace for 56 goals this year. In fact, at his current pace, he will finish the season with 31 goals. Most players in the NHL would pay dearly to top the 30-goal plateau, but Cheechoo set the bar far higher during last year's magical ride.
It should be noted that Cheechoo did miss six games earlier this year with a knee injury, an ailment that hindered his skating for a substantial period of time.
"That's not really an excuse," Cheechoo insists. "It's just something where maybe I got away from the way I was playing last year. I have to get myself closer to the puck and get to the scoring areas a little quicker. Now, maybe I'm turning away from the puck a little too much and staying more on the perimeter. I've got to get into the areas where I score my goals, 10 to15 feet outside the net."
Cheechoo also admits that some of his offensive woes can be traced to his uneven play in his own zone, a startling admission for a player who has made his bones by concentrating on what he does in the attacking areas of the ice. Yet Cheechoo insists that you can't separate one from the other in today's NHL.
So, the big forward has been more diligent about coming deeper into his own zone and exerting influence on the back check instead of taking a more lackadaisical approach without the puck.
"Maybe I got away from that a little this year and it's showed," Cheechoo said. "I didn't have a very good plus/minus (a minus-9) and I was letting things slip a little defensively. Now, I'm trying to get back to that and go back to the way I was playing a couple of years ago. In doing that, I just realized I had more chances offensively when I was playing good defense."
And the offense has come, mostly in spurts, since Cheechoo has rededicated himself to a more all-around game. From Dec. 31 to Jan. 18, Cheechoo had five goals and seven assists during an eight-game span. More recently, he turned in back-to-back, two-goal games against rival Anaheim in a huge home-and-home series.
Thornton believes Cheechoo is too good not to recapture his form.
"We haven't found the chemistry yet this year, but we have a lot of time for him to be on my right side," Thornton said. "He's just a great player, a great all-around player. He knows where to be in the scoring areas and he works really hard to get there. He's just a complete player."
Cheechoo says he has become more accustomed to not always playing on Thornton's right side. His demotion from top-line duty, he says, is no longer a concern.
"It was a little frustrating, but at the same time the team was winning, so I couldn't be too down on myself," Cheechoo explained. "It is just something that I think I have to work through it. Things are starting to go in for me now and I'm starting to feel a little better on the ice."
Those words are certainly comforting to fans of the San Jose Sharks, who have high hopes for their team this season. The team has 73 points through 57 games.
Cheechoo has enjoyed this playoff race, especially after experiencing the highs and lows of San Jose's furious charge into the postseason last season, a charge that was forged mainly through the heroics of himself and Thornton.
He knows if his team can maintain the momentum it has flirted with so often in the second half, the Sharks will be OK down the stretch and will have the opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup many thought might be claimed by this highly talented team before the season even began.
"It's just a thing of coming out and being more consistent," he says. "We had a problem earlier on of having a really good game and then following it with a not so good game and you can't gain any ground, winning one, losing one, winning one, losing one. We need to find a way to be more consistent and put some winning streaks together."
Sounds like advice that Cheechoo himself is eager to follow.