SAN JOSE, Calif. – Jonathan Cheechoo has never been shy about celebrating a goal. On New Year's Eve in St. Paul, he scored with 4:28 remaining in regulation to provide the difference in a 3-2 victory for the San Jose Sharks over the Minnesota Wild.
Cheechoo went into his patented high-stepping, arms churning, stick-wielding dash toward the boards, which was the only obstacle preventing him from running straight out of the building and into the winter night, it seemed.
The 27-year-old winger had good reason to celebrate this one. The shot came 10 seconds after the Wild had capped a comeback from a 2-0 deficit with a goal, and propelled the Sharks on to their first perfect four-game road trip in club history. It was a 10th straight road win – another team record – and moved San Jose to within two consecutive victories on foreign ice of tying Detroit's league record 12.
It also was a goal to give Cheechoo hope that the nightmare that was the final three months of 2007 might be over. What a struggle those months have been for the native of Moose Factory, Ontario, who captured the imagination of the hockey world by literally coming out of nowhere to lead the league with 56 goals two years ago.
Cheechoo's production may have dropped a bit, but ninety-three goals in two seasons from a player just moving into his prime, combined with the fact he signed a five-year extension, gave San Jose reason to smile.
And now this.
As the Sharks hit the halfway point of their season Saturday night, Cheechoo has just five goals in 2007-08, which is fewer than 201 other NHL forwards have scored this season. And he's been resigned to skating on a third line with speedy rookie center Torrey Mitchell and grinding left wing Patrick Rissmiller.
Cheechoo's playing time alongside Joe Thornton – his running mate during the magical 2005-06 run to the Rocket Richard Trophy – is diminished, and only occurs when coach Ron Wilson feels like rewarding him.
"I know my role on this team is to score goals, I haven't been doing that a lot this year," Cheechoo said matter-of-factly.
The big question is why? What has happened to the player who has always battled long odds, has always found a way to dig deep and prove the critics wrong?
Go back to last year's playoffs. Cheechoo suffered injuries in each of the first two rounds – one during a game in Nashville, a second similar one during a game in Detroit. The result was double hernia surgery in late May, after the Sharks were eliminated.
Barely able to move for several weeks afterward, Cheechoo's offseason regiment was thrown out of sync. He likes to run in the offseason, feeling that it better simulates skating than riding the stationary bike. He freely admits he needs to work hard or harder than most to make up for a lack of foot speed on the ice. As with his early years in the league, conditioning remains a top priority.
"I knew I was going to have to battle through the first couple weeks of the season to get myself ready," he said. "With surgery there is always scar tissue, but at the same time I felt like I was ready to start the season. I wouldn't have played if I didn't feel like I could help out there."
His help has been minimal, and that's being generous.
Cheechoo's contribution will always be measured by his goal production, and that’s at an all-time low. He scored his first goal in the team's seventh game, a shot in Vancouver that gave the Sharks a three-goal lead late during an eventual 4-2 victory.
His second came in the next game at home against Detroit. It was a big goal, tying the game at 2-2 against the team that eliminated the Sharks in the postseason, but San Jose went on to a 4-2 loss.
A six-game drought followed before Cheechoo scored his one and only goal in the month of November. It came at Los Angeles, an insurance goal during a 3-1 win over the Kings. He didn't score in the next 12 games until breaking the streak with the game's first in Dallas on Dec. 5. That goal stands as his only one scored on the power play this season. The Sharks won that night.
Two more games followed without a goal, and injury was added to insult when he pulled a groin and had to sit out seven in a row. Cheechoo returned the day after Christmas in Los Angeles and went three more scoreless games before finally breaking through against the Wild.
"I've always been counted on to score goals for every team I've played on," Cheechoo said. "For me, it's not that big of an adjustment. I know I have to score to help the team out.
"I think I put more pressure on myself than anybody else could because I know for me to be effective that's what I've got to do. If you put too much, you beat yourself up."
His health will influence his confidence, and when Cheechoo feels good about himself he'll start to produce like the Sharks need and want. He says he's broken through the mental scars just as much as he did the physical ones following the surgery at the start of the season.
"It's a matter of trying to gain my confidence and find a groove," Cheechoo said. "Little things like this, starting to feel better in practice – it's all feeling like it's starting to come together.
"It comes down to me, I feel good right now, everything is feeling real good on me."