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Thornton brings new life to Sharks
SJ defeats Buffalo 5-0 in team debut
12/2/05 - by Derick Bellamy

Amid analyses of Wednesday's trade, in which The San Joes Sharks received high-scoring center Joe Thornton from The Boston Bruins in return for Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart, and Wayne Primeau, few in the hockey world were paying attention to The Sharks' 4-1 loss to Dallas that night. With this new acquisition, perhaps it was in fact time for San Jose and their fans to forget the team's ten-game losing streak and start fresh. That appears to be exactly what they did on Friday night.

The Buffalo Sabers were hot coming off of a five-game winning streak and 8 wins in their last ten contests, putting them within 5 points of the league-leading Ottawa Senators; San Jose had not won a single game while visiting Buffalo in their entire 15-year history.

Both sides played hot early on in the game, resulting in fast-paced hockey, with one team carrying recent success and one, newfound potential. Thornton, who took the opening face-off, made a quick debut, hitting the post for a near-goal only ten seconds into the game.

Joe Thornton and winger Jonathan Cheechoo proved to be a powerful combination early on. They played on the first line with Scott Thornton, Joe's cousin, and created several scoring opportunities. Defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who will likely take a larger role in San Jose's defense due to Brad Stuart's absence, almost scored as well, taking advantage of the pressure that the aggressive forwards were providing. Capitalizing on the energetic atmosphere provided by the Cheechoo-Thornton line, Milan Michalek and Patrick Marleau set up Grant Stevenson for the first goal of the night at 4:16 into the 1st period.

"The first couple of shifts we sustained pressure in their end, and had good control," Cheechoo said after the game. "When you spend that much time in their end, I think everybody gets a little more energized."

It certainly didn't stop there for San Jose. Less than a minute later, with the first line back on, Cheechoo took a pass from Thornton to give The Sharks their second goal of the night at 5:10. Cheechoo's scoring ability made up for his relatively slow skating, as he received several centering passes from Thornton's rushes up the side. The pattern continued at 6:18 as the Marleau line scored again. This time Michalek got the tally, while Stevenson provided his first assist and Marleau his second of the game, putting them ahead 3-0 before the first period was half over. The Sharks were playing aggressively and defenseman Kyle McLaren seemed happy to make several large hits throughout; The Sabers, having played the night before, did not respond well to this.

Following Jay Mckee's two-minute hooking charge at 9:21, Buffalo appeared to have killed the penalty, but Nicholas Dimitrakos scored what was technically an even-strength goal just seconds after the end of San Jose's mid-period power play. He was assisted by Josh Langfeld and Alyn McCauley at 11:26 to give The Sharks a 4-0 lead; this caused the Sabers to pull the young goaltender Mika Noronen and put in veteran Martin Biron, who was expecting to have the night off.

As the first period progressed San Jose was comfortable in having attained their first four-goal lead, and their game became less offensive. Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov who, with a 3-7-4 record, appeared to be having one of the worst seasons of his career up to that point, played well when needed; he made several major, often very close saves later on in the period. Known as having a bad right side, it was rather evident that he had become aware of this and was making much better use of his blocker, stopping several Buffalo attempts to take advantage of his apparent weakness. As the end of the period approached The Sharks spent most of the time having had twice as many shots as Buffalo, having out shot them 14-7 at one point.

Consecutive Buffalo penalties caused a 5-on-3 for San Jose early in the second period. Marleau, Thornton, and Cheechoo, together on the first power play line, seemed determined to have San Jose's PP unit start to rise statistically from its current position near the bottom of the league. They scored only seconds in and allowed an almost two-minute 5-on-4 to follow, during which The Sharks put on a lot of pressure but did not score again.

The game slowed down after that point. San Jose, outplaying their opponents, likely did this on purpose, as it helped them protect their 5-0 lead. Thornton still made several more scoring attempts, all of which Biron was able to turn down. Unfortunately for Buffalo his relatively good goaltending was both too little and too late. San Jose did great defensively and their speed, which Thornton added even more of, allowed them to clear the puck properly and then cover the net in the defensive zone repeatedly. Josh Langfeld, Marcel Goc and others from the 3rd and 4th offensive lines made several scoring attempts, showing San Jose's depth despite the loss of three players.

There was a scuffle 13:48 into the 2nd, following which The Sabers' Gaustad received one penalty and San Jose's Murray two, resulting in a Buffalo power play that the Sharks were able to kill. San Jose became somewhat cocky late in the 2nd. They received two penalties from Christian Ehrhoff and Scott Hannan near the end, and went into the third period still killing one of them off. Fortunately they were able to protect their 5-0 lead throughout, partially thanks to Nabokov, who seemed intent to prove the almost bromidic saying that your goalie is your most important penalty killer.

Going into the third period, San Jose seemed to be correcting their short phase of sloppiness. They caused a lot of turnovers during a span of back and forth play early in the period. Although it didn't give them another goal, it prevented Buffalo from getting their first. After a rush at the net during which he was sprawled out on the ground in his crease, Nabokov had to be taken to the dressing room 9:40 in. Having switched goaltenders a lot this season, The Sharks can only hope that it wasn't a long-term injury.

"It was more of a precautionary thing," said Nabokov, who missed eight games to a shoulder injury earlier this season. "We'll see how it feels."

Marleau, perhaps somewhat jealous of the Cheechoo-Thornton combo, made a puck run down the middle with seconds left in the game. Considering that he had two defensemen in his way, he came rather close to scoring but was unable to do so. The gamed ended and The Sharks won 5-0. Back-up Nolan Schaefer was able to sustain their shutout until the end of the night.

Their next game is Saturday in Toronto against The Leafs, who have won 7 of their last ten and benefited from San Jose's win Friday night, as they are tied with Buffalo and Montreal for second in the Northeast Division; they all trail Ottawa and hope that Boston, last in their division, won't take advantage of what they received from San Jose.

Friday's game was the franchise's 12th in Buffalo, which was up until then the only NHL city where they had never collected a point. They'll have to hope that their season has started to change as well.

Though The Sharks still lack experienced Stanley Cup veterans, the much-needed scoring power added by Joe Thornton might rekindle San Jose's ambition for success this year. Given their history of comebacks, the team still has the potential to make the sort of surprise run they made in the 2003-04 season. They just have to take advantage of the opportunity. Attaining a big scorer along with their newfound willingness to get players from the rest of the league is two steps in the right direction. It's not too late, but they have to be capable. All the time in the world won't help them otherwise.

The pre-season gave false hope to many. And, as Friday's game began, the speakers at HSBC Arena played 'Won't Get Fooled Again.' Sharks fans should hope the team won't be by how well this one game went. They got cocky near the end of the second period, and long-term cockiness will cause real damage.

If they're going to turn the season around and leave last place in the Pacific (the Sharks seem intent on either winning it or coming last in it, as they did one or the other the last three seasons,) they need more than a fresh start. They need to start something good.

'Meet the new Joe. Better than the old Joe (who's still here and isn't that bad himself.)'


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Scoring
1 2 3 T
SJ 4 1 0 5
BUF 0 0 0 0
1st period - 1, San Jose, Stevenson 2 (Marleau, Michalek), 4:16. 2, San Jose, Cheechoo 8 (Thornton, Ehrhoff), 5:10. 3, San Jose, Michalek 3 (Stevenson, Marleau), 6:18. 4, San Jose, Dimitrakos 4 (Langfeld, McCauley), 11:26.
2nd period - 5, San Jose, Cheechoo 9 (Thornton, Marleau), 2:09, (pp).
3rd period - None.
Penalties
1st period - McKee, BUF (hooking), 9:21; Goc, SJS (delay of game), 13:22.
2nd period - Hecht, BUF (hooking), 0:47; McKee, BUF (interference), 2:01; Fitzpatrick, BUF (boarding), 3:53; Murray, SJS double minor (cross-checking, roughing), 13:48; Gaustad, BUF (roughing), 13:48; Ehrhoff, SJS (high-sticking), 16:10; Hannan, SJS (hooking), 18:13.
3rd period - Afinogenov, BUF (hooking), 4:15; Thorburn, BUF (kneeing), 10:32; Goc, SJS (tripping), 18:17.
Goaltending
  Shots Saves
SJ - Nabokov 20 20
SJ - Schaefer 7 7
BUF - Noronan 11 7
BUF - Biron 15 14
Shots On Goal
1 2 3 T
SJ 14 5 7 26
BUF 7 10 10 27
Power Play Conversion
SJ 1 of 6
BUF 0 of 5
3 Stars of the Game
Jonathan Cheechoo
Patrick Marleau
Joe Thornton
Attendence
18,007
Officials
Referees: Don Koharski, Wes McCauley. Linesmen: Pierre Champoux, Brian Mach.

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