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HELENE ELLIOTT / ON THE NHL

Sharks reset and refreshed themselves into true Stanley Cup contenders

San Jose decided last season that it needed to become a quicker team, so it brought in a ton of youth. Now, the Sharks are challenging the Ducks for the top spot in the division.

March 17, 2014|Helene Elliott
  • Sharks rookie winger Matt Nieto fires a shot against the Lightning during a game earlier this season. Nieto has 10 goals, 11 assists and a plus-3 rating in 55 games this season.
Sharks rookie winger Matt Nieto fires a shot against the Lightning during… (Chris O'Meara / Associated…)

The seeds of the San Jose Sharks' six-game winning streak, their 8-1-1 record since the Olympic break and ascent to a tie with the Ducks atop the Pacific Division were planted at last season's trading deadline, when Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson and his staff realized their plodding team needed a new identity and a major infusion of youth.

"We did the reset/refresh, where we clarified how we wanted to play. We wanted to be a much faster team," Wilson said.

He had a head start with strength down the middle in Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau, so Wilson mostly reconfigured the wingers and defense. That meant unloading Ryane Clowe, Douglas Murray and Michal Handzus and giving chances to Tommy Wingels, Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto. "It has allowed us to play the way we wanted to play," Wilson said Monday.

"We moved some really quality people out, but that was the reset/refresh that we felt would take about a year. We needed the younger guys to get the opportunity to step up, and they have."

His plan, delayed by injuries throughout the lineup, has unfolded as he'd hoped. The Sharks haven't had their full lineup at any point this season, an occupational hazard in the rugged West but a point worth mentioning given their recent success and challenge for the division lead.

The Sharks are 11-2-1 since they lost their last three games in January and are even with the Ducks at 97 points, though San Jose has played one more game. The teams will meet Thursday on the Sharks' home ice.

The timetable for the return of many injured players convinced Wilson he didn't have to make any moves at this season's March 5 trade deadline.

"Losing some of the key pieces to injuries and getting them all back, it has just come more together right around post-Olympic break," he said. "We went on a trip to Philadelphia, Buffalo and New Jersey. Some guys came back and Couture, [Raffi] Torres and Nieto played extremely well and it made us feel that our group is capable of playing extremely well when they're all together.

"If Couture, Torres and Nieto hadn't come back healthy right after the Olympic break, prior to the trade deadline, we probably would have had to do something. It was all predicated on the health of our players and we were fortunate enough to get good medical reports, and we like and believe in our team."

There's every reason to believe in them now, but the Sharks have never reached the Stanley Cup Final and haven't gotten past the second round the last two seasons. Yet, it's tempting to expect more this season, based on goaltender Antti Niemi's rejuvenation since the Olympics — he has won his last five decisions and set a franchise record for saves in a shutout with 41 stops Sunday in a 1-0 road victory over the New York Rangers. And the team has become speedier while still skillful and bruising.

"We look at it that you play to win and we have very high expectations and we don't apologize for that," Wilson said. "You want to win your last game. It's that simple. The first step is you've got to make the playoffs, which is not as easy as it sounds in the West. And then you've got to be playing well and, knock on wood, be healthy and have your lineup intact. From there, it's the old one game at a time. You get on a roll and off you go.

"You've got to get in and you've just got to be playing well."

Golden goalie

Shannon Szabados, goaltender for the Sochi Olympic champion Canadian women's hockey team, made 27 saves but lost her debut playing alongside men for the Columbus (Ga.) Cottonmouths of the Southern Professional Hockey League on Saturday.

Szabados and her teammates — including three of her former teammates at Canada's Northern Alberta Institute of Technology — lost to Knoxville, 4-3. "I thought she played well," Cottonmouths Coach Jerome Bechard told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. "She made the stops she was supposed to make. We hung her out to dry for about a 10-minute span in the second period."

Szabados, who is 5 feet 9 and 140 pounds, isn't the first woman to play in a men's professional game: Manon Rheaume played goal for Tampa Bay in a 1992 exhibition. But it will be interesting to see if Szabados tries to climb the pro hockey ladder or if the SPHL is the highest she can go.

Slap shots

The Chicago Blackhawks, long unable to find a reliable No. 2 center, tried winger Ben Smith there Sunday and he responded with a goal, an assist, and wins on seven of 10 faceoffs. Also in that game, winger Marian Hossa returned after missing five games because of an upper-body injury. He had a goal and two assists.

The Dallas-Columbus game, postponed March 10 when Stars forward Rich Peverley collapsed on the bench, was rescheduled by the NHL for April 9. The game will begin with Columbus leading, 1-0, but a full 60 minutes of regulation time will be played plus overtime and shootout as needed. The goal will stand, but all other statistics will be expunged. The league took the same steps when Detroit's Jiri Fischer collapsed during a game against Nashville on Nov. 21, 2005.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Twitter: @helenenothelen

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