In San Jose’s 6-3 romp over the visiting Columbus Blue Jackets, Team Teal had everything go right for them offensively. Once again Jonathan Cheechoo led the way with a hat trick and Nils Ekman tied the franchise record that he tied just the other night as he posted four assists. Joe Thornton also posted four points.
However, the highlight of the game clearly was the dramatic hit by Kyle McLaren on Trevor Letkowski, leaving the Columbus forward on the ice for several minutes with the wind knocked out of him.
“I didn’t know who it was,” said McLaren. “It’s a rush. I really didn’t see the hit because it was to my back. I had to force him to dump it in or hit him and I chose the latter”
And those who didn’t see the hit definitely heard it.
McLaren made his move after seeing Letkowski look in another direction for a pass, then he closed the gap and pummeled Letkowski to the ice.
“That’s when I went over to him,” said McLaren. “Anybody who has their head down, or they’re not looking at you, that’s when you go at them. As soon as he dropped his head for a second, I was going over there. On my point, it was too low. I would like to do that at the blue line. That’s my guy and that’s my job.”
Kyle’s boss knows that opposing players always have to watch out for hits like that.
“It’s a skill to hit like that,” said Ron Wilson. “It's timing and experience. That is one of the hardest hits I’ve ever seen. I think the guy only had the wind knocked out of him. We had a two-on-zero going the other way, but the referee blew the whistle. It’s like a NASCAR crash. That’s a wreck in the third corner coming off the turn. Amazingly the kid came back.”
And the hits do more than affect the individual opponent.
“It’s funny how the attention goes to retribution rather than getting back in the game,” said Wilson. “It’s perfect for us. There is nothing dirty about those hits. I don’t want to see any of our guys going low and kneeing people. On Kyle’s hit, the timing was perfect. When I watched the replay between periods I said ‘Thank God it wasn’t me.’ Those kind of hits will make you quit.”
THREE AGAIN Cheechoo now has two hat tricks in his last six games.
“The puck is just finding spots,” said Cheechoo. “My linemates are just creating havoc and I’m able to get loose. The puck is going through the pack. Joe is a great passer and Ek is as well.”
And what of the hats that hit the ice?
“I’m starting to collect them,” laughed Cheechoo.
He is now on pace for a 50-goal season – the Sharks current record is 44 goals set by Owen Nolan in the 1999-2000 campaign.
“When you get as many opportunities as he gets, you’re going to score a lot of goals,” said Wilson. “He is being set up incredibly by both Joe an Ek. I can’t really say I’ve seen a guy with that much confidence. In terms of just being relaxed and allowing those guys to do their thing. He is reading the play very well and getting himself open. When the puck gets on his stick, he is going to put a quality shot on goal. When you get seven or eight shots on goal, you’re going to score a lot of goals.”
And Wilson has coached a few goal scorers, having been around Pavel Bure, Paul Kariya, Teemu Selanne and Jaromir Jagr.
Cheechoo is staying focused on the important matters.
“As long as we keep winning, that’s the important thing,” said Cheechoo.
While a natural goal scorer, Cheechoo hasn’t traditionally put up a large amount of hat tricks as a professional, so the two within the short span is a little bit of a surprise.
“My last year of junior I had quite a few, maybe six or seven,” said Cheechoo. “I had a couple in Kentucky and Cleveland.”
Cheechoo doesn’t have the stick he used for the first hat trick, but this one might stay close to the vest.
“Maybe I’ll use it next game,” said Cheechoo. “Maybe I’ll keep this one for myself. I don’t want to get too greedy, but . . .”
Cheechoo’s three goals match the number of teeth he is still missing from the December 22 Phoenix contest.
“I wouldn’t mind waiting (to get them fixed),” said Cheechoo. “It doesn’t hurt now.”
Thornton enjoys playing the setup man to Cheechoo.
“He’s been playing great, but when he scores three, everyone is happy, not just me,” said Thornton. “To see a guy get a hat trick is exciting for us and for the fans.”
Cheechoo’s center has known his winger from long before their San Jose days.
“We have a mutual friend and he water skied behind my boat about three years ago,” said Thornton. “I know the story of Moose Factory and things like that. We knew each other just a little bit, but he is a good friend now. I’m not quite ready for Moose Factory yet. I have to know him better.”
Many try to draw comparisons between Cheechoo and Glen Murray, but Thornton doesn’t see it quite the same way.
“I haven’t seen anyone like that to be honest with you,” said Thornton. “Everything just looks smooth and sometimes when he scores, it’s awkward. I don’t know who he reminds me of. He is a great player.”
STRANGE MOVE Ekman obviously enjoys playing with Cheechoo and Thornton as his four helpers attest.
“I’m happy that things are going my way right now,” said Ekman. “I’m not complaining.”
On the Sharks third goal, a Thornton pass put Ekman on a two-on-one with Cheechoo. Ekman’s move was a surprise to just about everybody in that he made a jerky motion with his leg before passing the puck.
“He fooled me,” said Thornton. “I thought he was going to shoot the backhand, but it obviously fooled the goalie, so it worked well for us.”
Whatever the move was, the result was a goal.
“I don’t know what I did,” said Ekman. “I saw it on the replay and it looked stupid. I was just trying to deke a shot and put the puck on my backhand and hopefully get the goalie down. I made my mind up when I got the puck that I was going to pass it. I might try it again, but so it looks better – not stupid.”
“I think he was trying to get the goalie to bite a little on his move and it gave me enough time to get it upstairs,” said Cheechoo.
Ekman is enjoying his time on the line and especially how Thornton raises everybody’s game, not just his.
“That is the best compliment to give to a teammate or anyone is that you make other players better,” said Ekman. “He makes me better when I’m playing with him. It hurt to lose those teammates in a trade, but the good thing about it is we got Joe and I speak for everyone when I say we’re all thrilled to have him here. He is an unbelievable hockey player.”
TOSKALA AGAIN For the second straight game at HP Pavilion, fans saw Vesa Toskala earn the victory. Yet, the Finnish netminder still sees room for improvement between the pipes.
“I’m closer, but I’m still not there,” said Toskala. “I’m jumping around a little bit. I want to be calmer. We are picking up some points, so that is a good thing.”
Toskala has received 11 goals from his offense in the last two outings.
“It makes it so much easier, so I can make one mistake like the second goal I let in,” said Toskala. “That doesn’t happen every day, so I have to stay sharp.”
Toskala has earned victories in his last four starts, winning back-to-back games for the second time this season.
NO LAYOFF WORRIES San Jose had not played since last Friday, so there is always concern about a layoff. The Sharks answered the bell, just as they did in December.
“There were a lot of parts I was really happy with,” said Wilson. “We had a lot of energy, which I would expect. We got off to a good start. You worry about where the rust is going to be. We almost copied the same practice format we had a month or so ago when we came out flying against the Capitals. The only problem was tonight’s it was almost too easy early and we got a little sloppy and let them back in. We buckled down and all-in-all, I’m pretty pleased with the performance.”
Wilson wishes a few other Sharks would fire on net a little more.
“I wish a few guys would pay a little more attention to Cheechoo in that he shoots the puck all the time as opposed to trying to make the types of passes Joe makes,” said Wilson. “More of our guys would be successful if they shot as much as Cheechoo does.”
STREAKING With his hat trick tonight, Cheechoo is on a four-game point streak (7-2=9) and has tallied 16 goals in his last 14 games. Ekman is currently on a five-game point streak (2-8=10), posting eight assists in the last two games.
Ekman’s eight assists in the past two games, ties Kelly Kisio’s franchise record for the most points in consecutive games. Kisio’s record was set in Dec. 1992, when he posted one goal and three assists in consecutive games.
Posting a goal and adding three assists, Thornton extended his point streak to four games (3-6=9). Thornton has posted points in 12 of the 14 games he has played as a member of the Sharks, posting multi-point efforts in eight of them.
GWG Grant Stevenson got the game-winning tally when he stuffed in the puck under the legs of Marc Denis.
“That’s what you want, for guys to keep their noses down and keep digging for pucks,” said Wilson. “We caught a bit of a break on that one. If I was on the receiving end of that, I’d be upset too. It was a split second. He saw the puck and got his stick in there. They argued for a long time, but the referee isn’t going to change his mind in that situation.”
NEXT GAME The Sharks will return to HP Pavilion Saturday night when they host Los Angeles in a Pacific Division battle. The 7:30 p.m. start will be aired on FSN Bay Area, 98.5 KFOX and sjsharks.com. Tickets are still available at the HP Pavilion Ticket Office and www.ticketmaster.com.