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Three Periods: Patrick Sharp shoots his way out of the shadows in Chicago

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Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s weekly Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include Patrick Sharp’s mission to prove himself as a first-line player; huge attendance figures for outdoor games; Phoenix Coyotes’ quest to host a Stadium Series game next season; why the Coyotes are rebranding themselves the “Arizona” Coyotes; plus, notes on Martin Brodeur, Ryan Callahan and Steven Stamkos.

FIRST PERIOD: Sharp accomplishing his mission to prove he’s a first-liner

Patrick Sharp had always been in shape. Every year, he had finished near the top when the Chicago Blackhawks did their fitness testing at training camp. But this time, in his early 30s, after a short summer, he finished at the top – No. 1, even ahead of freak Duncan Keith.

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Patrick Sharp wanted to prove he's a first-liner in Chicago and good enough for Team Canada. (AP)

“You could tell he was on a mission,” said general manager Stan Bowman.

Sharp wanted to avoid the Stanley Cup hangover. He wanted to make Team Canada for the Sochi Olympics. But he also wanted to show coach Joel Quenneville that on a team stacked with stars – Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa – he belonged on the first line, not the second.

Well, mission accomplished. Sharp has played with Toews and Hossa since late October. He has performed so well that he has made Team Canada and kept Quenneville, a notorious line juggler, from splitting them up.

He’s tied for second in the NHL in goals with 28 and tied for seventh in the league in points with 55 – on pace for 41 goals and 80 points, both of which would be career highs. He plays the point on one of the league’s top power plays, but that hasn’t boosted his numbers too much. He’s tied for fifth in even-strength goals (20) and seventh in even-strength points (37).

“Playing for Joel, proving to him that I can be a first-line player is a big thing,” Sharp said. “He’s given me the opportunity to play not more minutes, but minutes on the top line against top defenders and other teams’ top lines. I want to make sure I show him that I’m capable of playing good minutes up there.”

[Also: Ryan Getzlaf grows up, puts together MVP-type season in Anaheim]

The Philadelphia Flyers drafted Sharp in the third round in 2001. He spent most of his first three professional seasons in the minors (including the 2004-05 NHL lockout season). Then he was traded to the Blackhawks in 2005-06, when they were one of the worst teams in the league.

He broke out as a goal-scorer as the team improved, racking up between 33 and 36 goals three times, and he put up big numbers in the playoffs – seven goals when the Blackhawks went to the Western Conference final in 2009, 11 when they won the Cup in 2010, 10 when they won the Cup last year. But he has never received the accolades some of his teammates have.

“Sometimes it’s hard,” Bowman said. “He’s a great player, but he’s sort of been in the shadow of Toews, Kane, Hossa, Keith, [Brent] Seabrook. The one way to get recognition is to really dominate, and he’s done that. …

“I think playing on the top line certainly has helped, but it’s not like they were carrying him along. There’s been spurts where he’s carried everyone else along. I think he’s skating better than ever, and he’s got the speed. He’s just – I don’t want to say matured – but he’s evolved into being not just a goal-scorer but into being an all-around player.”

Sharp turned 32 on Dec. 27. He said he is inspired by another University of Vermont product – Tampa Bay Lightning winger Martin St-Louis, who won his second NHL scoring title last season and continues to excel at age 38. The Blackhawks’ strength and conditioning coach is Paul Goodman, who came from UVM.

“I think I’ve gotten better every year of my pro career to this day,” Sharp said. “I’m not sure why that is. Being on good teams definitely helps, being in the right situations, staying healthy, all that stuff. But I’m a fan of the game. I like to think I watch a lot of hockey, I’m a student of the game. I’m always learning and trying to get better.”

SECOND PERIOD: Outdoor games have produced outlandish numbers

If any outdoor game should have been one too many, it was Wednesday night’s game at New York’s Yankee Stadium. This was the second outdoor game in four days in the same city, and it was on a weeknight in bitter cold.

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The NHL's first four outdoor games have been a hit at the gate and created buzz for the league. (USA Today)

Yet the place was packed. The fans filled the stands all the way to the upper corners in left and right fields to see the New York Rangers play the New York Islanders.

“It was another amazing night,” said Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. “I said out there on the ice, ‘It’s a great stadium, but you need the fans to make it special.’ They showed up.”

The NHL is four games into its ambitious six-game alfresco schedule, and here are the numbers: 105,491 for the Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium outside Detroit on New Year’s Day; 54,099 for the Stadium Series game at Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium on Saturday night; 50,105 for the first Yankee Stadium game Sunday; and 50,027 for the second.

That’s a total of 259,722.

That’s an official figure – tickets sold for the Winter Classic, announced attendance for the other three games. Let’s allow for a little fudging. A few fans didn’t show for the Winter Classic because of bad weather and treacherous travel conditions, and the NHL gave away four tickets to each of its employees in New York for Wednesday night’s game, for instance.

[Related: Henrik Lundqvist finds outdoor groove at Yankee Stadium]

Let’s also acknowledge that the NHL overpriced tickets. Many sold for less than face value on the secondary market for each of the games. The owners got their money, but some folks who paid full price might be unhappy.

But even if you’re being conservative, the NHL drew more than 250,000 fans to these four games – four regular-season games that were Nos. 610, 782, 784 and 806 on the 1,230-game schedule. That’s more than 175,000 fans more than the teams would have drawn had these four games been at Joe Louis Arena, Staples Center, Prudential Center and Nassau Coliseum.

The league has sold out the March 1 game at Chicago’s Soldier Field, which has a capacity of 61,500 for football. It has not sold out the March 2 Heritage Classic at Vancouver’s B.C. Place, which has a capacity of 59,841 for football. But it’s Canada, and it’s hockey, and it’s still more than a month away.

In the end, the NHL almost certainly will have drawn more than 370,000 fans for six games – more than 260,000 more than the teams would have otherwise. It will have sold all kinds of pricey concessions and merchandise, too, and generated immeasurable buzz.

No, the NHL can’t keep staging six outdoor games a season. But again, this season was always considered a special case, because the league wanted to rebound from the lockout, piggyback on the Super Bowl in the New York area and give its TV partners something to promote entering and exiting the Sochi Olympics.

NHL chief operating officer John Collins has said the league will “definitely not” stage six outdoor games next season.

But for all the talk about outdoor games losing their novelty, the NHL gauged the market pretty well this season and sees plenty of demand in the near future. The Washington Capitals will host the Winter Classic next season, likely at Nationals Park, and there will probably be two or three other outdoor games. A lot of teams want a shot.

THIRD PERIOD: Could the Stadium Series go to Phoenix next season?

The Phoenix Coyotes just made their pitch for a Stadium Series game next season.

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The Coyotes ownership is pushing for a Stadium Series game in Phoenix next season. (AP)

There is no formal application process, like there is for an All-Star Game. But members of the Coyotes’ ownership group met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly in L.A. to express their interest and vision, then watched the game at Dodger Stadium.

“Certainly to date, it’s nothing but a success,” said Anthony LeBlanc, a co-owner of the Coyotes and their president and chief executive officer. “I think what the league would like to do is get through the next two games in Vancouver and Chicago and then regroup and figure out what they’re going to do, because one thing I’m pretty certain of …”

LeBlanc laughed.

“We’re not the only group asking for a stadium game,” he said. “I think pretty much every NHL team is looking for one.”

Coors Light, the title sponsor of the Stadium Series, reportedly would like a home game in Denver. Collins has mentioned Colorado, plus Minnesota and San Jose. The list goes on.

[More: Tampa Bay's Ben Bishop makes case as NHL's best goalie]

The Super Bowl and the Phoenix Open will be played in the Coyotes’ backyard next year, and the Coyotes would like to take advantage of that. Though they could not use University of Phoenix Stadium next door to Arena because of the Super Bowl, they could use Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe or Chase Field in downtown Phoenix.

LeBlanc said the Coyotes have a strong relationship with the Diamondbacks and he talks to Derrick Hall, their president and CEO, every few days. Chase Field has a retractable roof, if needed, but the L.A. game was encouraging. The temperature reached almost 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the afternoon. The ice was protected from the sun by insulated blankets, and the game was played at night when the sun was down and the temp was around 60 degrees.

“I was more curious about logistical things, like, ‘How’s the ice going to hold up? What’s it going to be like at an outdoor venue to watch a hockey game?’ ” LeBlanc said. “And I think any concerns that anybody had logistically were completely wiped away. There’s no question that the NHL ice crew did a phenomenal job. I obviously wasn’t out there skating, but from all reports, the ice was pretty darn good.”

What about attendance? The Coyotes are averaging 12,998 fans this season, last in the NHL. Why do they think they can fill a stadium?

“It certainly is a question that anybody should ask – including ourselves when we first looked at it,” LeBlanc said. “Would we be able to sell 45,000 or 50,000 tickets? I think we feel very confident for an event like that that would not be an issue whatsoever.”

The idea is that a Stadium Series game – particularly when combined with the Super Bowl and Phoenix Open – would attract fans that night as well as help attract fans to games in the future.

“That’s the key,” LeBlanc said. “It’s all about boosting our brand. It’s all about boosting the brand of the National Hockey League and just awareness of hockey in general. We think all of those happen if we are blessed to have a stadium game.”

OVERTIME: What’s the difference between “Phoenix” and “Arizona” Coyotes?

The Coyotes announced this week that they will rebrand themselves as the Arizona Coyotes next season, as they said they would do when they were sold last summer. Like the Arizona Cardinals in football and Arizona Diamondbacks in baseball, they want to represent not just the Phoenix area, but the state and even the entire Southwest.

LeBlanc noted that their TV footprint on Fox Sports Arizona extends into New Mexico and parts of Nevada.

“I don’t think historically the Coyotes have done a good enough job of connecting with a city like Tucson or a city like Flagstaff,” LeBlanc said. “So it might be a subtle thing, it might be a little thing, but I do think it’s important.”

He laughed.

“Not to put my Canadian hat on,” he said. “But I grew up in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and all we ever hear about is Toronto. And it drives you bananas.”

SHOOTOUT: Notes from around the NHL

— Martin Brodeur keeps saying he’s open to a trade but won’t ask for one – a passive-aggressive move, a shame for an icon. He doesn’t want to be the bad guy after spending his entire career with the New Jersey Devils. But for all he has accomplished – 682 wins, three Stanley Cups – he is now a 41-year-old goaltender with an .899 save percentage. Yes, he’s a competitor, and that’s what made him great, and his pride is hurt now that he’s lost his starting job. But does he really think a contender will trade for him to be a starter? Does he really want to go elsewhere to be a backup? Does he really think it’s worth it for him or the Devils to part ways at this point?

— Ryan Callahan is reportedly on the trade block, because he’s a pending unrestricted free agent and butting heads with the Rangers on a new contract. But at this point, it seems more like general manager Glen Sather is doing his due diligence – and some hardball negotiating. Callahan’s role has been reduced under new coach Alain Vigneault, but he’s still a heart-and-soul player, the captain of the team. The Rangers are playing well after a slow start, second in the Metropolitan Division. Sather has to see what he can get for Callahan as a rental, but he also might want to scare Callahan into reducing his demands.

— Steven Stamkos is practicing. He has left open the possibility he could return from his fractured tibia and play for Team Canada even if he doesn’t play for the Lightning first. You have to trust Stamkos, the doctors and Steve Yzerman – the Lightning GM and Team Canada executive director. But this is a sticky situation for owner Jeff Vinik, the kind of situation owners hate about Olympic participation. How do you let your franchise player play in Sochi before he plays in the NHL? How could you alienate your franchise player by telling him he can’t?

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