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Sharks' top-paid goalie dealing with backup role
By Victor Chi
Mercury News
Evgeni Nabokov, who owns most of the Sharks' career goaltending records, has played a secondary role to Vesa Toskala in the team's late-season run.

While the Sharks have charged into the postseason with a memorable surge, one of their most decorated players has been confined to a largely forgotten role.

The Sharks have gone 16-3-2 since the trade deadline March 9, but goalie Evgeni Nabokov has played in just four of the games, going 2-2.

Nabokov has been the main man since displacing Steve Shields early in the 2000-01 season. This has made the transition to being No. 2 behind Vesa Toskala difficult to digest, despite the team's success.

``It's been pretty tough the last couple weeks,'' said Nabokov, who owns virtually every career goaltending mark in franchise history.

``I just didn't expect that, to be honest with you. But I'm trying to stay positive, which is really tough. But what can you do? You know the team is playing well. There's nothing you can do about it. Just wait for the chance and be ready. That's about it.''

Injuries have contributed to Nabokov's sub-.500 season (16-18-7). But Sharks management had enough confidence in his ability to rebound that it signed him in early February to a four-year, $21.5 million contract extension rather than risk losing him after this season as an unrestricted free agent.

The Sharks also kept Toskala off the unrestricted market by signing him in late February to a two-year, $2.75 million contract extension.

Nabokov battled through shoulder and groin injuries in the first half of the season. He appeared to have turned the corner while playing for Russia at the Olympics as he posted three shutouts, including one over gold-medal-winning Sweden.

But in his second post-Olympic start, an overtime loss March 7 in Anaheim, Nabokov was shaken up on the last play, a shot by Ducks defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh. It was initially believed that Nabokov sustained abdominal bruising after taking Ozolinsh's shot in the gut, but the injury was actually to his knee.

``After my last injury, I felt pretty good,'' Nabokov said. ``I've been ready to go any day. I just didn't expect that type of decision, that's all.''

The deck has been stacked against Nabokov in two of his four starts since coming back from the knee injury. One was at Detroit, where the Sharks have had nightmares. Another was the first game at home after a long trip, always a tough nut to crack.

``It doesn't matter which game I'm playing, I can't let the softies in,'' he said. ``And I don't think that I've been letting the softies in, at least from my perspective. When I get the chance, I'm going to try to play the way I was playing and I'm not going to put extra pressure on.''

Meanwhile, Toskala was named the NHL defensive player of the week twice in a three-week span.

Nabokov earned the victory over Vancouver on Thursday, one night after the Sharks clinched a playoff spot. In the postgame TV interview, Joe Thornton, when asked to explain the club's success, said: ``We have one of the best goalies in the league and he's playing awesome. And Nabby came in tonight and played great.''

Toskala, though, has yet to appear in an NHL playoff game. Considering the lack of quality goaltending around the league, the Sharks are fortunate to have someone with Nabokov's résumé -- a 1.71 goals-against average in the 2004 playoffs -- to step in if needed.

Toskala declined to discuss his postseason inexperience because he said the coaching staff hasn't officially told him anything about playoff assignments. ``So I don't want to start guessing anything yet,'' he said.

But Toskala might be part of a trend in this year's playoffs: a new wave of goalies.

Ottawa's Ray Emery and the New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist are rookies. Carolina's Martin Gerber has two games of playoff experience. Montreal's Cristobal Huet has zero.

Detroit, the President's Trophy winner, will be counting on Manny Legace, who has had a great season but has played in just five playoff games. Dallas' Marty Turco would be considered one of the more seasoned goalies, and he has won just one playoff series.

The Sharks' first-round opponent, Nashville, will deploy Chris Mason, who has no playoff experience. Starter Tomas Vokoun is out because of a rare blood disorder.

Toskala gained valuable experience in the past three months as the Sharks went through an extended stretch of high-pressure games. He worked both games of three back-to-back sequences in the past four weeks. But with the Sharks limiting the number of shots he faces, Toskala shouldn't be worn out.

``Everybody is still pretty fresh because if you're playing like this as a team and keep winning, you get so much more extra energy,'' he said. ``So you're not that tired as if you'd been losing games. It's a great feeling right now.''

To me, the issue is not so much Nabby not playing well, but the team not playing well in front of him. I think there's an adjustment period, but... the playoffs is not really the time to give up an adjustment period. :P

Sharks tandem locks up trophies
By Victor Chi
Mercury News
Sharks right wing Jonathan Cheechoo, left, and center Joe Thornton each edged Rangers forward Jaromir Jagr.

The Sharks, who had produced just two winners of a major award before this season, doubled that total Tuesday when Joe Thornton captured the Art Ross Trophy for most points and Jonathan Cheechoo earned the Maurice ``Rocket'' Richard Trophy for most goals.

Thornton, who had 125 points, and Cheechoo, who had 56 goals, became the fourth set of teammates since 1979-80 to sweep the scoring awards.

``I know a lot about the history of hockey,'' said Thornton, who scored 92 of his points after joining the Sharks in a Nov. 30 trade with Boston. ``Obviously winning the Art Ross -- there's a lot of big names on there. I'm very proud to put my name on that award as well. It's very humbling and you'd never dream of it. This is just something that comes.''

The Sharks completed their regular-season schedule Monday, but Jaromir Jagr of the New York Rangers had one last chance to catch Thornton and Cheechoo on Tuesday.

Thornton didn't watch the Rangers' game on TV. Relaxing at the beach with his girlfriend, he got phone calls from his brother and General Manager Doug Wilson to give him the good news: Jagr managed an assist, but finished with 123 points and 54 goals, two short of the Sharks in each department.

Thornton's previous high for points was 101 in 2002-03. Cheechoo's previous high for goals was 28 in 2003-04.

``It's just showing hard work is paying off,'' said Cheechoo, one of five 50-goal scorers along with Jagr, Washington's Alexander Ovechkin (52), Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk (52) and Ottawa's Dany Heatley (50). ``This is why you work out in the summer, trying to get better.''

Cheechoo also led the NHL in winning goals (11) and hat tricks (five). He became the first player to record five hat tricks in a season since Mario Lemieux had six in 1995-96.

His hat trick Saturday against Anaheim moved him past Jagr.

Cheechoo scored 49 goals after Thornton arrived from Boston. Thornton assisted on 38 of the 49, including two against Buffalo on Dec. 1 in his debut with the Sharks.

``We've just seemed to connect,'' Cheechoo has said repeatedly.

Thornton was tied for 11th in the league in scoring at the time of his trade. With 33 points, Thornton trailed Jason Spezza by eight, Daniel Alfredsson by seven, and Jagr and Peter Forsberg by six each.

Thornton said he wasn't thinking about the scoring crown then.

``No, you just want to come in and play well and make an impression on your teammates,'' he said. ``From Day One, I just played really well with Cheech. You don't think about that. You just go out and try to play hard each and every night, and good things usually happen.''

Until this season, the only Sharks to win major awards were Evgeni Nabokov (Calder Memorial Trophy, 2001, for top rookie) and Tony Granato (Bill Masterton Trophy, 1997, for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication).

What kind of weirdo hangs out at the beach - at night, even! - in Northern California? It's fucking freezing!

Called out, he replied by jumping in
By David Pollak
Mercury News

At one point this season things were so bad for Tom Preissing that his coach figured the second-year defenseman needed to watch a few games from the press box. Ouch.

``He wasn't playing as hard as we needed him to play,'' Ron Wilson said. ``I don't know, mentally, if he was content to look at himself as a sixth defenseman. We certainly weren't. We felt he had to be one of our top four.''

Point made.

Preissing finished the season with the second-most goals (11) and points (43) by a defenseman in franchise history. He had the best plus-minus rating among the team's blueliners (plus-17). His average ice time of 20 minutes, 29 seconds was behind only Scott Hannan, Kyle McLaren and Joe Thornton.

His coach's opinion now?

``He certainly over the course of our season has been our best offensive defenseman,'' said Wilson, who relied more on Preissing after Brad Stuart was traded to Boston. ``He's scored a lot of big goals.''

Preissing, an undrafted Colorado College graduate signed by the Sharks as a free agent in 2003, still sees himself as a defense-first player who can jump into the play when the situation calls for it.

``I don't think I'm a defenseman who will ever lead a rush,'' he said. ``I'm just kind of the guy who will maybe lay in the weeds a little bit. You look at the game sheet and I may get a couple assists, but you weren't like, `Wow, this kid was in the play all the time.' ''

Hannan sees Preissing as a key to the Sharks' power play, ``the right-handed shot we've always needed, the one-timer on the off wing.''

Preissing is one of several Sharks defensemen who took an increased role in the offense as the season went on. He credits his forwards.

``When our forwards are cycling the puck well and forechecking well,'' he said, ``the other team has to put so much pressure on them down low that it spreads the ice and it opens up the defense a lot.''

And if it were his job to stop Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo?

``I'd go off the ice,'' Preissing said, ``and let someone else take the minus.''

Lay in the weeds!!! I wuv TP.

Other ways to lead than with stats
By David Pollak
Mercury News

This was the career year that Sharks fans were hoping the team's captain would have.

Before 2005-06, Patrick Marleau's high marks were 28 goals and 57 points in each of the two previous seasons. He didn't finish higher than 37th among NHL scorers. This season, Marleau's 34 goals and 86 points made him the 19th-best scorer in the NHL -- but only the third best on his team.

The fanfare was subdued.

``That's fine with me,'' Marleau, 26, said of the bulk of attention going to Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo. ``They're having awesome seasons, too, and they deserve all the attention they've got.''

Until Thornton's arrival from Boston, Marleau seemed to be the only Shark regularly putting the puck in the net.

Marleau did benefit from Thornton's presence. For one thing, opponents had to divide their top defenders between the two lines centered by Marleau and Thornton. For another, Coach Ron Wilson used both on the same power-play unit for a while.

Wilson attributed his captain's improved scoring to two things: the NHL's new rules and Marleau's new status in the post-lockout era.

``I think Patty's grown into his role,'' Wilson said. ``There aren't a ton of veterans, like a glass ceiling, so to speak, that prevents you from taking off.''

Marleau's contributions weren't only on offense. A hit on Calgary defenseman Bryan Marchment, for example, sent his former teammate flying.

The team's early season problems tested the soft-spoken Marleau's skills as a captain. He said he mostly tried to lead by example -- ``just trying to play hard, work hard. . . . There are other guys in the room that, kind of when things need to be said, they're said. But I always throw in my two bits, too.''

Teammate Alyn McCauley praised Marleau's handling of the job.

``He stayed calm. He's very even-keeled and I think that's a good quality to have in a leader . . . that levelheadedness.''

I love that Patty isn't threatened by Joe, and in fact that the two of them seem to like each other and get along and stuff. It's like a milder version of Nabby and Vesa getting along. It makes me very happy. Also, when did Patty start talking and smiling in interviews? How do they grow up so fast? *cries*

He's quiet. His game? Hardly so
By David Pollak
Mercury News

It's hard for the guy who scored the most goals in the NHL to be overshadowed. But to a degree, that's what has happened to Jonathan Cheechoo this season as he skated alongside MVP candidate Joe Thornton.

At least until the past two weeks, when Cheechoo's numbers could not be ignored. His 56 goals were the most in the NHL since his boyhood idol, Pavel Bure, notched 59 five years ago; his 93 points set a franchise record.

Cheechoo's fist-pumping celebrations leave no doubt that he is enjoying himself on the ice when he's out there with Thornton and linemate Nils Ekman. But the same can't always be said about the postgame interviews, where he is somber with only an occasional smile.

Ask him about that and the response is a nervous laugh.

``I can't say I totally enjoy it,'' he said of the media cluster that will only increase during the playoffs, ``but I know it's part of the territory and I'm beginning to like it, I guess. As long as we're winning, I'll take that attention.''

Coach Ron Wilson acknowledges that Cheechoo, 25, is probably the biggest surprise among this season's five 50-goal scorers. But Wilson points out that the right wing had 28 goals in 2003-04 skating on a checking line before new rules opened up the game. So it's not as if he has come from nowhere.

Still, this season, with Thornton feeding him the puck, Cheechoo reigns as the best in the business.

As long as the two remain linemates, hockey analysts don't see the right wing from Moose Factory, Ontario, as a one-year wonder. One, in fact, was already comparing Cheechoo to the Los Angeles Kings' Luc Robitaille, who retired this week as the NHL's top-scoring left wing, with 668 goals.

``Neither one is a pretty skater,'' said ESPN's Barry Melrose, who was the Kings' coach when Robitaille scored 63 goals in 1993. ``Cheechoo certainly doesn't look great, but he gets there. Robitaille was the same way. He had a good shot and he shot all the time. He was selfish, but in a good way.'

He doesn't fall down while celebrating or go into the net anymore now that his skating is better. I kinda' miss that. :P It's so weird to see Cheech's name with the list of all those top goal scorers, and even weirder that he's at the top of the list. He's always been one of the guys who makes goals happen, though. The only other guy we had who was close is probably Marco. *sniffle*

On 2nd try, impression was made
By David Pollak
Mercury News

It took a second chance for rookie Steve Bernier to stick with the Sharks. When he did, San Jose had a legitimate second scoring line.

Bernier, 21, was San Jose's first-round draft pick in 2003. Trying to jump to the NHL from Moncton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound right wing started his first pro season with the Sharks' farm team in Cleveland.

Called up for five games during the Sharks' disastrous November, it was one goal, zero assists and back to Ohio. But in those five games, he realized what areas of his game needed work.

``I think the most important thing was confidence,'' Bernier said. ``It's tough to play good if you don't have confidence. But I also had to improve my skating, my quickness.''

He returned to San Jose in late January. Though it took 12 games for him to find his scoring touch again, Bernier started clicking on March 7, and so did the Sharks. He had 13 goals and 21 points in the season's final 23 games as San Jose went 16-4-3.

Bernier and fellow rookie Milan Michalek now flank Patrick Marleau to give the Sharks a line that meshes size, speed and skill.

Landing on one of the team's two top lines went beyond Bernier's own vision.

``My goal was to come play in San Jose this year,'' he said. ``If that would be on the fourth line, it would be on the fourth line. If that would be on the first line, it would be the first line. If I was in the stands for just in case something happened, an injury, I'd be here for sure.''

Bernier made memorable contributions during the stretch drive -- a big assist on the goal that capped an April 1 comeback against Phoenix, a short-handed breakaway goal against Anaheim two weeks later. But for one of his teammates, it was his spin-o-rama move in the crease to score in St. Louis on March 21 that stands out.

``After seeing that one goal,'' Marleau said, ``you can pretty much expect anything from him.''

This was the line that gave me hope that we would make the playoffs. When they came together it was like, hey maybe there can be more consistency now. Patty and two babies. *squeaks*

Settling right in
By David Pollak
Mercury News

In some ways, the California-zation of Joe Thornton is a work in progress.

The Sharks superstar who arrived from Boston in a trade last fall now has a Giants cap in his collection, but he isn't sure whether his first Bay Area baseball game will be in San Francisco or Oakland. He has walked the beaches of Santa Cruz but, though he says he'd love to try, has yet to climb on a surfboard.

Still, he can whine about the weather like a native.

``I didn't expect there'd be so much rain out here, to be honest with you,'' he said of the waterlogged spring that dampened everyone's spirits. ``That's been a shock.''

He's smiling as he says that, of course. With the Sharks beginning their drive for the Stanley Cup in Nashville today, nothing seems to dampen Thornton's spirit.

The man -- all 6-foot-4, 235 pounds of him -- is one upbeat 26-year-old. With good reason.

He finished the regular season with more points than anyone in the NHL. He gave teammate Jonathan Cheechoo the opportunity to become the league's leading goal-scorer. And he has San Jose well-positioned for what seemed like an improbable playoff run before he walked into the locker room Dec. 1.

What's not to be happy about?

That wasn't always the case in Boston, where the Bruins made Thornton the first pick in the 1997 draft and immediately labeled him the savior of the franchise. When the team failed to achieve greatness over the next seven seasons, aspects of his relationship with the city soured.

It's not something Thornton chooses to talk about, though he did allude to feeling like a scapegoat at the time of the Nov. 30 trade from Boston for three Sharks -- Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau. Instead, he emphasizes how much he loved the fans there -- as he says he loves the fans here.

But others indicate all was not smooth for Thornton in Boston, where his blond, easygoing presence was always more Beach Boy than Back Bay. He had high-profile media critics. And there were always those great expectations.

``Sometimes one guy can't do it all and I think a couple times they asked him to,'' said Sharks defenseman Kyle McLaren, a teammate of Thornton's for five seasons in Boston.

``He's out of there now and maybe that's the best thing for him. He's happy here, he's excited.''

Thornton's parents, Wayne and Mary, also talk about how happy their son is playing in San Jose -- and how glad they were to see him get a fresh start. They happened to be finishing dinner with him in Boston when Joe got the phone call telling him he was no longer a Bruin.

``He said, `I've been traded,' '' recounted Wayne Thornton from the family home in St. Thomas, Ontario. ``And I said, `That's great, Joe. Where've you been traded to?' ''

Wayne Thornton considered San Jose -- ``sunny California!'' -- a fine change of scenery. And his words show that his son's optimistic outlook is genetic: ``In this family, we make lemonade. You've got to take the positive from it.''

As the playoffs begin, one might expect Joe Thornton to be looking to prove something to his Boston critics.

After all, they were quick to point out the Bruins won only one of six postseason series with him. And when he went scoreless in a seven-game, first-round upset loss to Montreal in 2004, he took a verbal pounding -- even though he was playing with a cracked rib, an injury undisclosed until the Bruins were eliminated.

Thornton won't go there.

``The last playoff I played in was in Switzerland and we won it all,'' said Thornton, who skated for Davos during the 2004-05 NHL lockout and had 24 points in 14 postseason games. ``That's the one I refer to.''

And he dismisses any need for outside motivation: ``Nobody can put more pressure on me than I put on myself. I want to win a Stanley Cup.''

Thornton came back from Switzerland with more than a championship. He met his girlfriend, Tabea Pfendsack, there and the two of them are building a life together in Northern California.

For now, they're renting a house in Silver Creek. After the playoffs, they plan to dive into the real estate market and figure out how to spend some of the $6.6 million Thornton will earn each of the next two seasons.

His next purchase is likely to be worlds removed from the $2.75 million penthouse condo he bought in downtown Boston shortly before the trade.

``It'll probably be down in Saratoga, Los Gatos -- that's where everybody says to go,'' Thornton said of his next home.

Hillside or valley?

``Whatever's closer to the rink,'' he said. ``That's all that matters to me.''

Thornton's first California address was the San Jose home of his cousin, teammate Scott Thornton, where he lived for the first month.

``He's really been committed to try and immerse himself in the community in the short time we're here,'' said Scott Thornton, one of several Sharks who have pointed Joe toward area beaches and attractions.

So far, Scott Thornton -- an avid cyclist on nearby mountain roads -- hasn't taken his cousin out on two wheels. ``I don't know if he'd be into that at all,'' Scott said, grinning. ``He's more of a Sunday-NFL-football-on-the-couch kind of guy, I think.''

Joe Thornton has taken in the same sights as most newcomers. He has driven Highway 1 along the coast and the narrow roads leading to redwood forests -- ``I forget which one.'' He has been to San Francisco only once, and that was on New Year's Eve.

He hopes to get there for a baseball game, but linemate Cheechoo is pushing him in another direction. ``Cheech wants me to go to an A's game, so we'll see where we go first,'' Thornton said.

When he talks about how much he likes the fit of his new life in California, it's hard to tell whether he's talking about the Sharks' locker room or his world away from hockey. In truth, his words probably apply to both.

``I'm comfortably set in,'' he said. ``It's like I've been here for years.''

For shame, Smitty and Hannan haven't taken him surfing yet? And only been to SF once? Man, what a couch potato. A man after my own heart, if he wasn't Joe, y'know? ;)

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