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Marleau and Niemi spoil former Sharks' return, win 3-1

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In a normal season, it may be tough to get riled up for a Minnesota Wild visit to San Jose. With all the transaction activity throughout the offseason between the two teams, though, tonight's match was one that was important to both sides.

You wouldn't know it from the post game quotes, though. When asked about the feeling of beating their former team, the transplants played the role of good soldiers.

"It feels great," said Martin Havlat of the win, "though it doesn't matter who you play as long as you get the two points."

Interestingly enough, none of the players who switched sides had all that much impact on the game. Brent Burns brought his increasingly solid defense and added an assist in what was probably the best showing of the four players. Instead, the game breakers tonight were Patrick Marleau, who potted two goals, and Antti Niemi, who stopped 21 of 22 Minnesota shots. 

The first period was, in a word, boring. San Jose and Minnesota each had chances on the power play, but neither team was able to convert chances into results. The shots were low, the action was slow and the goalies put on a show. Nicklas Backstrom made the period's biggest save; Brent Burns culminated a series of beautiful passes with a tape to tape feed to Joe Thornton at the goal mouth, who was robbed by a desperate, sprawling, Backstrom. At the end of the period, the game was still tied at zip.

However, the Sharks turned it on against Minnesota in the second; Marleau made a heads up play and stole a misplayed puck from the feet of Justin Faulk. Quickly, he squeezed one past Backstrom at a tough angle. It was Marleau's fifth goal of the season, but he was just getting started.

About thirteen minutes later, the Sharks passing game was again sharp on the power play, and Ryane Clowe found Marleau with a glorious pass that set up a booming one timer. Backstrom had no chance on the play, as Marleau scored his second of the game and his fourth goal in the last four contests. Although he was back on the wing on the power play, Marleau's move to center even-strength has seemed to invigorate the known streaky scorer.

Back to the power play, though, which scored two tonight. San Jose, who was facing a team who hadn't allowed a power play goal in any of their last five contests, all wins. The two successes on the man-advantage were therefore more impressive that usual, and head coach Todd McLellan was happy with the effort in that facet of the game in his post-game press conference.

"We haven't had any issues with our power play," said McLellan, looking back at the season as a whole. "We aren't trying to paint a Picasso. It's about scoring goals and our power play did that again for us. That part of it is good. We knew they were going to have a very good penalty kill, and we found ways to beat it and that's rewarding."

Later in the period, Torrey Mitchell would add an even strength goal off an offensive zone face-off win by Michal Handzus, Mitchell's first of the season. At that point, Minnesota looked defeated and appeared to pack in it.

Kyle Brodziak scored with 6:27 left to break Niemi's shutout bid, but the game was long over at that point. It was a convincing win for San Jose in a feel-good game.

Surprisingly, both Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley were near non-factors tonight, as they combined for just one shot. The only impact either had on the game was that they both took penalties in Minnesota's near endless trek to the penalty box. It was a strictly officiated game with a few too many calls for this writer's liking, but San Jose definitely earned a few with their speed and strength.

"There were two glaring differences in the game for me between our team and their team. One was the discipline," stated Minnesota head coach Mike Yeo. "Obviously we took more penalties than they did, and [at] bad times to give them a chance to take over control of the game. The second was [that] they were much stronger on the puck than we were. I thought we had way too many turnovers." 

It's also worth noting that this was just the second time in the last eight games that San Jose was perfect on the penalty kill. The only other time in that stretch, the win against Pittsburgh, the Sharks didn't take a penalty. Still a work in progress, but a step in the right direction after a system overhaul this week.

This was likely the Sharks' best sixty-minute effort of the year, something that has been lacking in games past. Even still, the team is on a blistering pace, winning eight of their last ten games and earning points in all but one. It looks as if the moves Doug Wilson made in the offseason are starting to come together, and tonight's showcase of the new Sharks juxtaposed against the players he sent packing vindicated his decisions, at least for one night.