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Monday, December 22, 2003
Sharks spreading responsibility

By Graig Woodburn
Special to ESPN.com

They were at rock bottom of the Pacific Division last season. Ditto to start this season.

Vincent Damphousse
The Sharks need to get back to their winning formula.
So how are the San Jose Sharks suddenly circling within a swift stride of the lead in the Pacific?

"We had a rough first 10 games, after that we have played pretty well," said veteran center Vincent Damphousse. "With all the changes that happened last year there are a lot of guys who have opportunities for ice time and the chance to show what they've got. They're making the best of it now."

Like many National Hockey League teams, the Sharks have gotten very good at getting the most amount of standings points out of the least amount of offense. San Jose enters play Monday having gone 11 games without scoring more than two goals but is 5-3-2-1 during that span.

It's no surprise that the Sharks are relying on Damphousse and Patrick Marleau to carry a big part of the scoring load. Marleau leads the team with 13 goals, Damphousse with 15 assists. That's the easy part.

Each had a goal in the Sharks' 2-1 victory over Anaheim on Sunday that improved the Sharks to 7-6-3-2 on the road.

"We've had three things -- solid goaltending, a good power play and excellent penalty killing," said coach Ron Wilson. "When you have those things clicking on the road you're going to be successful."

And the road is where the Sharks became a team.

After starting the season 1-5-3 and beginning a seven-game road trip with a listless 3-0 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Oct. 28, the players held a closed-door meeting the next day in Tampa. The team tied the Lightning the next night and proceeded to go 7-1-4-2 over the next 14 games, moving from the bottom of the division to within striking distance of the first-place Kings.

"All we really changed was going hard for 60 minutes, that was the one thing we said over and over in the meeting," said center Alyn McCauley who was acquired by the Sharks in the trade that sent Nolan, the team's captain at the time, to the Maple Leafs at the deadline last March.

McCauley is one of the many young San Jose players who have started showing some bite this season. He has already matched a career high with nine goals while enjoying his new start.

"There's no question, I've been given more ice time, more responsibility," said McCauley who is currently skating with the "C" on his jersey as part of the Sharks' rotating captaincy system. "It's been fun. I just like to compete. Doing what ever you can in the game and having the chance to win."

The resurrection of competitive play in San Jose has been about getting everyone involved.

CIRCLING SHARKS
SPAN RECORD
Games 1-10 1-5-4-0
Games 11-20 3-1-4-2
Games 21-30 6-2-2-0
"One night we had 16 different guys killing penalties, so it's kind of spread," Wilson said. "Everyone is expected to do it. It's like our power play. Just about everyone on our team gets involved in the power play. There's a competition, if you do well you get to go back out there. It also helps everybody feel a little better about themselves. They contribute in all situations."

Left wing Marco Sturm has increased his goal total by seven each of the last three seasons, progressing from 14 goals, to 21 to 28 last year. He has 10 through 33 game this season, so keeping the progression going to 35 may not be that unrealistic. Second-year forward Jonathan Cheechoo, who had nine goals during his rookie season last year, has eight goals already this season. Left winger Nils Ekman, acquired from the New York Rangers during the offseason for minor leaguer Chad Wiseman, has provided seven goals.

Through the mix, the Sharks have developed the often-elusive secondary scoring options that teams need to make a difference.

"The way this team plays, we just try to get everyone to pull their own weight," Cheechoo said.

On defense, Scott Hannan, Mike Rathje and Brad Stuart are logging more than 22 minutes of ice time a night, while Kyle McLaren and Tom Preissing are not far behind.

Taking the Pacific Division might ultimately be a question of having the best goaltending, which means the race is wide open. The Kings haven't won more than three games in a row in front of Roman Cechmanek this season and are currently relying on backup Cristobal Huet as Cechmanek nurses an inured hip. The Dallas Stars have been waiting for Marty Turco to regain some of last season's form. The Mighty Ducks have been doing the same with Jean-Sebastien Giguere, however, Martin Gerber has shown the ability to capably bear some of the goaltending burden. The Phoenix Coyotes have trouble protecting Sean Burke, who has seen 39 fewer shots than Turco but has played in eight fewer games.

The Sharks' Vesa Toskala (2.07 goals-against average, .929 save percentage) is the only Pacific Division goalie who entered Monday's games in the top 10 in GAA and save percentage. Evgeni Nabokov, who was in goal for 15 of the Sharks' first 20 games, returned from a seven-game absence due to a groin injury on Dec. 6. He's started four of the Sharks' last five games (2-0-1-1), lowered his GAA to 2.42, and raised his save percentage to .917.

When gauging how balanced and fundamentally sound the Sharks have been consider that Mike Ricci, often the heart and soul of Sharks the past few seasons, has been dispatched to the fourth line lately. Well-traveled center Wayne Primeau has taken his place as the third-line center.

"It's not so much what (Ricci) hasn't been doing," Wilson explained. "It's more what (Primeau) has been doing. He needed to be rewarded with a little more ice time."

Solid goaltending, commitment to defense, balanced scoring and special teams ranked in the top half of the league. That'll get you some points.

"If we can keep the veteran players playing at a high level and have some young guys stepping up," Damphousse said, "I think you'll see our team winning games on a regular basis like we are doing now."

Graig Woodburn of the Press-Enterprise in Riverside, Calif., is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.