Growing up in the small town of Aneroid, Saskatchewan, Patrick Marleau always was the fastest kid on the ice.
Now, 34 years old and in his 17th National Hockey League season with the San Jose Sharks, not much has changed.
Marleau used his sprinter’s speed to score the game-winning goal in overtime when the Sharks completed a sweep of the Vancouver Canucks in their Western Conference Quarterfinal series.
Joe Thornton won the draw in the Sharks end and Marleau took off the other way, swinging into the middle and generating speed as Dan Boyle hit Thornton with a pass in the neutral zone.
“I stayed onside, but I still had gained that speed in the neutral zone, followed the play in and I saw [Thornton] shoot and was going to the net at the same time,” Marleau said. “It was just laying there.”
“It” would be the puck that he knocked home for a power play goal at 13:18, before Canucks goaltender Cory Schneider could recover after making the initial save.
“He [Marleau] saw it and I saw it probably at the same time,” Logan Couture said of the puck. “He got there about two steps ahead of me. That shows how slow I am compared to how fast he is.
“I wish I could skate like him,” Couture added. “He’s just so explosive. He’ll outskate a lot of [defensemen with his] outside speed. [He] wins a lot of puck races.”
Throughout the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Marleau rarely acted his age. He used his explosive speed and quickness to score a goal in every game against Vancouver. And although the team came up just short in their second round series against Los Angeles, Marleau continued to be a factor for the Kings to deal with.
In that Vancouver series, Marleau scored the game-tying goal with 56 seconds left in regulation in Game Two and the Sharks went on to win 3-2 in overtime. Roberto Luongo rejected Marleau’s shot from the slot, but the puck trickled behind him and Marleau jetted to the net and scored before Luongo could cover it.
Most 30-something athletes start losing a step here or there. If Marleau has, no one seems to have noticed.
“My trainer and I have a term we use when talking about being able to skate fast,” said teammate James Sheppard. “It’s called effortless effort. It has nothing to do with not putting in effort or trying hard. It’s being able to do it seemingly effortlessly. That’s what Patty has. He hasn’t slowed a bit. You watch him backcheck and it’s three strides and he’s there. He’s fun to watch.”
What’s Marleau’s secret?
“I just try to do what it takes to stay in shape and stay strong,” Marleau said. “In the offseason and during the season, working with [strength and conditioning coordinator Mike] Potenza and just doing some different things to keep the leg strength up. It helps the speed on the ice.”
The fact that Marleau has logged so much NHL experience also helps him get the jump on his younger opponents.
“It’s all game situations where you see speed,” Marleau said. “If you line guys up on the blue line or red line and have a race, there’s like tenths of a second difference between people. But during a game it’s read and reaction, knowing when to jump in the holes, that makes people look fast.”
In the semifinals against Los Angeles, Marleau scored the Sharks first goal of the series against Los Angeles in Game Two, taking a pass from Thornton and beating Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick from close range.
He showed he’s more than just a goal scorer when the Sharks, trailing 2-0 in the series, faced the Kings in Game 3 at HP Pavilion. Marleau had two assists, including the primary helper on Couture’s game-winning power play goal at 1:29 in overtime, giving the Sharks a 2-1 win. Marleau took a pass from Thornton near the goal line, just right of the crease, and quickly sent the puck to Couture in the slot. Couture elevated a shot past Quick.
In the first period, Marleau had the primary assist on Boyle’s power play goal. For the 22nd time in his playoff career, Marleau finished a game with at least two points.
Marleau now has 57 postseason goals, a franchise-record and second among all active NHL players, behind only New Jersey’s Jaromir Jagr. He tops the Sharks all-time postseason list for goals, game-winning goals (14), power play goals (21), short-handed goals (four), points (96), games (136) and shots (379). He ranks second in assists (39) behind Joe Thonton.
Marleau has a history of going on hot streaks — in the regular season and playoffs — and he never was hotter than during the Sharks first five regular season games. He scored two goals in each of the first four games and one goal in the fifth. He had three game-winners and four assists during that streak.
In past playoffs with the Sharks, the pressure seemingly fell squarely on Marleau to carry most of the goal scoring load. Three years ago, Marleau scored five goals in four games against the Chicago Blackhawks in the conference final. The next year, he scored four goals in five games in the conference final against Vancouver. But the Sharks lost both series.
Despite being voted the winner of the RAM “Sharks Fan Favorite Award” for three consecutive seasons, Marleau has taken criticism from some critics for what they consider to be a lack of passion.
“He’s a really misunderstood athlete,” Coach Todd McLellan said. “The passion in him is exceptional. He just doesn’t [outwardly] show it all the time. We see it.”
If scoring 30-plus goals in six of his last seven full NHL seasons (and adding 17 in last season’s shortened campaign) qualifies as “unpassionate,” sign us up.
“It’s great to see Patty do what he does after what he takes in the media and what people say about him and his character,” Couture said. “It’s good to see Patty be successful.”
Marleau is in the final season of his contract with the Sharks. He’ll be nearly 35 when his deal expires, but Marleau said he’s not even thinking about retirement.
“I think I still have a lot of hockey ahead of me,” Marleau said.
So far Marleau has played his entire career with the Sharks and hopes he ends it in San Jose.
“Obviously,” Marleau said, “it would be nice to win a Cup here and finish my career here. Since you were a little kid and you knew what it’s all about, you want to win it. You play with your friends, you’re playing for that imaginary Stanley Cup all the time.
“It would be great to share it with my family and friends. We’re playing for the Stanley Cup all the time in the basement with my boys,” he added. “That would be something, to be able to have it and maybe have a little game in the basement for it.”
Eric Gilmore covers the Sharks for NHL.com and is a freelance writer based in the Bay Area.