Sharks’ Thornton no ordinary Joe

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) – When Joe Thornton and the San Jose Sharks began the final period of their fourth game in five days, they easily could have taken the rest of the night off.

Their own playoff spot already was secure after a phenomenal surge over the last 10 days, and they trailed a desperate Vancouver club needing a win to stay in the postseason race.

Yet nothing seems to slow the Sharks these days. With three goals in the third period Thursday night – two on assists by Thornton, their season-saver in teal – San Jose beat the Canucks 5-3 to move into fifth place in the Western Conference.

“Obviously, we could have had a huge letdown,” Thornton said with a grin. “But we didn’t.”

The win was the seventh straight for the Sharks, who could clinch that No. 5 seed and a first-round playoff matchup with Nashville by beating Anaheim in regulation at the Shark Tank on Saturday.

“Hopefully we’re getting greedy,” defenseman Kyle McLaren said. “Two months ago, nobody would have thought we would be here.”

With two games left in the season, the Sharks have 97 points, two shy of the second-highest total in franchise history. For a team in 10th place just 10 days earlier, it’s a remarkable resurgence – and though Thornton deserves much of the credit, there’s plenty to go around.

“We’re not even close to worn out,” said coach Ron Wilson, who gave his team a day off Friday. “If we were worn out, the schedule would have killed us, and it didn’t. We’re a young team, and these guys are excited. They’re all fired up. When you get on a roll like this, you storm into the playoffs.”

San Jose’s surge actually isn’t as surprising as its early-season struggles, since the Sharks returned nearly all the talent from the squad that reached the Western Conference finals two years ago. The Sharks weren’t as good as most expected – but with Thornton leading their offensive efforts in recent weeks, they’ve been even better than anybody imagined.

“We got on a roll in December, and we’ve just been feeding on that and carrying over,” said Jonathan Cheechoo, who scored his 52nd and 53rd goals of the season Thursday night to extend his own franchise record. “We’re going into the playoffs playing really good hockey, and hopefully we’ll get to play Nashville.”

The Sharks’ post-Olympic surge has been spurred by several improvements. Vesa Toskala, San Jose’s longtime backup goalie, seized the starting job from inconsistent Evgeni Nabokov, while young defensemen Christian Ehrhoff, Josh Gorges and even newcomer Matt Carle became surprising contributors.

But the Sharks depend on Thornton, Cheechoo and Patrick Marleau, who have produced the three highest-scoring individual seasons in franchise history.

Thornton, who has 16 points in the Sharks’ last seven games, finished back-to-back wins over the Canucks with seven assists, tying him with Jaromir Jagr atop the NHL scoring race with 122 points. Both stars have two games left – but Thornton, thriving in his relative anonymity on the West Coast, professes no interest in any awards.

“He’s my pick for the MVP,” Thornton said of Jagr. “He’s had a great year, all year long. I just love playing. I love it out here. I feel really strong, and my game is good right now.”

Thornton assisted on 36 of Cheechoo’s 46 goals since the trade with Boston on Nov. 30. With seven goals in the last five games, Cheechoo trails Jagr by just one goal in the race for the Rocket Richard trophy.

Marleau has been the quietest offensive star, as you might expect from the taciturn captain. But with 86 points, he has realized his considerable potential after eight seasons in San Jose.

The Sharks aren’t a finished product. Their special-teams play has been weak, giving up five power-play goals in their two games against the Canucks while frequently struggling on their own power plays.

But after the final two home games of the regular season, San Jose will hit the playoffs as an opponent nobody wants to see.

“And it’s not about playing Nashville,” Wilson said. “You never know what’s going to take place in other series. The way the league is now, the 5-6-7-8 seeds could win, and then you’re left with home ice. Our goal is to finish with as many points as possible because home ice does matter, especially at the Tank.”

AP-ES-04-14-06 1748EDT

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