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A strong start and hoping for a stronger finish

by Tony Khing / Dallas Stars

The numbers speak for themselves.

After their first 33 games, the San Jose Sharks were tied for the second-best start in National Hockey League history (26-4-3, 55 points). Only the 1929-30 Boston Bruins were better (28-4-1, 57 points). At HP Pavilion, the Sharks have yet to lose in regulation, having gone 17-0-2. Actually, the Sharks are 25-0-3 in their last 28 home regular season games dating back to Feb. 14, 2008.

All great numbers. All good things.

However, remember what’s happened the last four seasons. After reaching the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 2003-04, San Jose’s run to the Stanley Cup stalled in the Western Conference Semifinals the last three seasons, including last year’s quadruple overtime Game Six loss in Dallas thanks to Brenden Morrow’s series-clinching goal.

“It’s not like we’re jumping for joy,” said defenseman Dan Boyle about San Jose having the best record in the NHL. “It’s a long season. We’ll see what happens.”

Boyle has been a big reason for San Jose’s dominance this season. He came to the Sharks, along with former Dallas defenseman Brad Lukowich, on the Fourth of July in a six-player deal with Tampa Bay.

Boyle has fit in well with new Head Coach Todd McLellan’s philosophy of putting lots of shots on goal, getting the defense more involved in the offense and being strong up the middle on both ends. Boyle, who won a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004, leads all National Hockey League defensemen in scoring with 26 points and his 10 goals tie him for the League lead.

Another former Stanley Cup Champion, ex-Los Angeles and Colorado standout Rob Blake, has also provided more offensive power from the blue line. The 19-year veteran is among the NHL’s top-10 defensemen in assists (18), shots (99) and points (23).

Besides the defense, the forwards are doing their share. Of course, there’s center Joe Thornton. As per usual, he’s among the NHL’s top-five in assists (29) and the top-15 in points (37).

He’s not alone. His right winger, second-year man Devin Setoguchi, has scored 16 goals in his first 33 games.

But the big story in 2008-09 has been Patrick Marleau, the long-time center who’s been moved to the left wing, a position he played for some of last season, on Thornton’s line. He’s two goals shy of tying his 2007-08 total of 19. In Marleau’s last 17 games, he’s scored 21 points (10 goals and 11 assists).

“I’ve never been a part of something like this,” Marleau said. “We push each other in this room. The guys hold each other accountable. We’re a fun group, but at the same time, we demand a lot from each other. I think that’s why we’ve had the start that we’ve had.”

Marleau is one of five Sharks with 10 or more goals this season. One of the five, left wing Ryane Clowe (14), agreed with Blake that McLellan’s style has made a difference.

“The style of play suits this team very well,” Blake said. “We can play up tempo. We’re big, strong and fast. When we can get all four lines and six defensemen going, we can skate pretty well.”

In the first 33 games, the Sharks are second in average shots per game (35.3). They’ve had 10-plus shots on goal in two-thirds of the periods. San Jose has also held opponents to single-digit shots in almost 62 percent of the periods.

“We have more confidence in each other,” Clowe said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a complete 180 (degree turn) in terms of style of play from last year, but it’s a different, more aggressive style. We get to the net, shoot more pucks and play less on the perimeter.”

Of course, while the scoring and defense has been solid, no one can overlook the Sharks goaltending. Evgeni Nabokov, who finished second to New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur for the Vezina Trophy last year, has won 18 of his 23 games while posting a 2.58 goals-against average. His understudy, Brian Boucher, has two shutouts in 10 appearances.

But while the numbers have been great, there’s one other thing that’s different about the Sharks this season. It’s something one can only see on the ice: the attitude.

“We’ve got a little bit of a swagger,” Clowe said. “When we play to our potential, we don’t think we should lose. We don’t play the scoreboard. It doesn’t matter if we’re up or down a goal. We play the same way. That’s what championship teams try to do.”

“They’re the best team in the League right now for a reason,” Los Angeles goaltender Jason LaBarbera said after he lost to the Sharks in a 3-2 shootout on Dec. 15. “That’s what makes the teams that are at the top of the League great. They find ways to win.”

“We want to keep playing well and get points every night,” Marleau said. “We’ve won games all different ways – blowouts, come-from-behind and shootouts. We’ve won some crazy games and some good character-building games.”

It’s all good -- as long as the Sharks can keep on winning up to the start of summer. “At the end of June,” Boyle said, “that’s what matters.”

Tony Khing is publications manager for the San Jose Sharks.

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