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Credit, kudos and return of the man-eaters
Transformation a pleasant surprise
1/4/04 - by Steve Flores

Credit needs to be given where credit is due. The 2003-2004 version of the San Jose Sharks came out of the gate as if they were the 1994-1995 team. No offense, poor defense, no special teams to make mention of and generally a bore to watch.

I saw no hope, no desire and zero heart. But alas, it is a long season and over the past month the Sharks seem to have transformed into the proverbial Phoenix as they have risen from the frozen ice to the top of the NHL's Pacific Division.

The team's turnaround seems to have begun after a players only meeting held by the team's veterans on Oct. 28 after a listless 3-0 loss to Carolina. The meeting made it clear to all that each and every player needed to step up their efforts. Specific references were made to the team's 2 brightest young talents, Patrick Marleau (24) and Marco Sturm (25). The two aforementioned players have been in the league for several seasons despite their youth. They both possess above average levels of speed, size, and skill yet have always been tentative with the puck as if fearful of stepping on the toes of more veteran members of the squad. Team Captain (at the time) Vincent Damphousse made it clear to the two young players that the time is now for them to take more initiative and that they need to take more chances with the puck.

Since that meeting the Sharks have streaked from last to first with stellar power play, penalty killing and goaltending.

"All we really changed was going hard for 60 minutes, that was the one thing we said over and over in the meeting," said current Captain Alyn McCauley.

McCauley, acquired for Owen Nolan last season, scored his career high 10th goal of the season Wednesday night with 4:59 left in regulation. The goal was the game winner as the Sharks downed Columbus 1-0. That win pushed the team to 8-6-4-2 on the road this season. McCauley is one of the veteran's that has stepped up his game during the team's current surge. A surge that has seen the Sharks extend a home-unbeaten streak to 11 games.

The praise however, is to be shared by the entire squad as the full team effort has resulted in some impressive statistics. The Sharks are amazingly 7th on the power play, 7th on defense and 15th in overall offense.

The team defense has been especially impressive during the current run of success. Kyle McLaren and Brad Stuart are healthy and levying crushing, bone shattering hits that had become trademarks of both players' games prior to a contract holdout and injuries respectively. Both are back on track. Scott Hannan and Mike Rathje have been stellar in their own zone and even the team's forwards have bought into Head Coach Ron Wilson's defensive system. The team and actually, the leagues current overall trend of defensive style hockey is definitely not the epitome of exciting, but the Sharks are as effective as any team in the way they play the game. If winning is the bottom line then the Sharks are well on their way back to playoff land.

Who woulda thunk it?

Three players that deserve special praise are Marleau, Sturm and Goalie Vesa Toskala. Marleau was drafted, as a 17-year-old wunderkind several seasons back and until now hadn't even come close to broaching the potential that the Sharks brain trust had envisioned he would achieve. Marleau's 17 goals place him 7th in the league in that category. But aside from his goal scoring exploits Marleau has been visibly more active on the ice and is obviously more aggressive on the attack than he has ever been. The same can be said of Sturm who has shown solid play in both zones and has clearly taken on a stronger leadership role on the team.

Toskala stepped in for an injured Evgeni Nabokov and provided quality net minding during the team's longest unbeaten streak (8 games) in franchise history. Since returning from injury Nabokov has also been nailz. Nabokov is 6-2-2 since returning from a groin injury.

Jonathan Cheechoo, Nils Ekman and Scott Parker also deserve praise. Cheechoo reminds one of a younger Mike Ricci with a bit more of a nose in the offensive zone. The young winger has an uncanny ability to be in the right position and his choppy skating style and go-for-it attitude makes him one of the more exciting players to watch when he is on the ice.

Now with his 3rd team in 2 season's Nils Ekman seems to have found a home in San Jose. Ekman has scored big game-winners for the team while electrifying the crowd with his skating abilities.

Parker acquired in an off-season deal has provided the toughness and some on ice skill that the team sorely lacked the past couple of seasons.

G.M. Doug Wilson and Coach Wilson had hoped to attack the rest of the league with youth, speed and team defense. Despite early failings the team has looked at itself and made almost amazing strides in transforming the floundering guppy into the once again proud carnivore of the Shark Tank.

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