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All the way to San Jose

FIRST PERIOD

Now this was a long road trip. The San Jose Sharks called up Logan Couture(notes) for one game in January. He traveled from Worcester, Mass., to northern California; played against the Chicago Blackhawks the next night; took a red-eye back across the continent that night; then played in the minors the next night. Or that night. Or whatever it was.

“You’re disappointed at first,” Couture said. “The whole plane ride, you’re wishing you were still there. Then you realize … you’ve kind of got to refocus back on hockey and back onto the team in Worcester.”

Couture looked around the Sharks’ dressing room earlier this week as he recalled that experience from last season. He is on another trip to the East Coast. But this one is all-NHL, baby.

“Everything from now on,” he said, smiling, “is just fine for me.”

It’s even better than that. Couture scored five goals and added an assist as the Sharks went 3-1-0 on a swing through Ottawa, Montreal, Detroit and Philadelphia – he also had the shootout winner against the Flyers – with a game Thursday night at Buffalo before heading home.

His 13 goals lead all NHL rookies. His 19 points put him one behind the Carolina HurricanesJeff Skinner(notes) for the freshmen scoring lead, and at plus-6, he is the only one of the top five rookie scorers without a minus rating.

On a team that includes veteran stars such as Joe Thornton(notes), Dany Heatley(notes) and Patrick Marleau(notes) – a team that has been struggling to find some consistency – the 21-year-old Couture has been the Sharks’ most consistent forward and has helped make up for the loss of center Manny Malhotra(notes) in free agency.

Needless to say, he won’t be shuttling up and down from the minors anymore.

“He’s hungry,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. “He’s got a nose that stays over the puck all the time, and what I mean by that is, he’s not in one battle and then out of it right away. He stays in the battles. He’s got a tenacity to him that he’s not going to be beat by anybody.”

Couture, the ninth overall pick in the 2007 NHL entry draft, played 25 regular-season games for the Sharks last season. (One more, and he wouldn’t be eligible for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year this season.) He was uncomfortable most of the season – being the go-to guy when in Worcester, being a role player when in San Jose. “You didn’t really know where you fit in,” he said.

But then he stuck with the Sharks in March, posted four goals and two assists in his last nine regular-season games, and scored four goals in 15 playoff games. “He came to camp this year believing he fit here,” McLellan said. “That playoff experience probably allowed him to do that.”

In more than one sense, Couture has come a long way in a short period of time.

“I saw him in camp a couple years ago,” Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle(notes) said. “He just wasn’t ready. And now, to see him now, he’s just a two-way complete player. He can score. He’s very reliable in his own zone. At such a young age, he’s got a lot of confidence, which I think is the biggest hurdle early. He’s got it. He’s been a big player for us.”

SECOND PERIOD

He once flubbed up for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship, firing a puck off a teammate and watching it trickle into his own net for the winning goal in the gold-medal game. He once suffered a 5-0 loss in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final. Eight times last season, he was yanked from a start.

Marc-Andre Fleury(notes) has a history of rough patches. But he always bounced back. So when he started this season 1-6-0 – while backup Brent Johnson(notes) started 6-1-1 – the Pittsburgh Penguins figured it was only a matter of time before ‘Flower’ would bloom again.

And now look: Fleury is on a career-best 10-game winning streak and has gone 12-0-1 in his past 13 games. His save percentage over that 13-game stretch is .940.

“I don’t think there was ever a time when anybody in our room – or the coaching staff – didn’t think Marc-Andre was going to play great hockey for us,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “He stuck to his game plan and his focus and his practice, and his game certainly has come around.”

Fleury, the first overall pick in the 2003 NHL entry draft, has so much talent and is so athletic, it tempts him to be too aggressive at times. That’s especially true when he struggles. Fleury said now he feels “a little more calm, more relaxed, probably more confident.” You can see it in how he is letting the game come to him, and you can see it in his face.

“He’s smiling under that mask,” Bylsma said, “and that’s that edge to his game that is so important to how he plays.”

Said Johnson: “Sometimes when it’s not going right, it just continues not to go right. It kind of just snowballs into something that you’re second-guessing yourself or maybe doing something too much in the net. I think maybe Flower got into that a little bit at the beginning, where he was going out there and trying too hard to win. He’s settled down, and pretty much what it comes down to, he’s playing a patient, sound, sturdy game.”

THIRD PERIOD

It’s hard to say the HBO camera crews are like flies on the wall as they follow the Penguins and Washington Capitals, capturing behind-the-scenes footage for a reality mini-series leading up to the Winter Classic, the outdoor game between the teams on New Year’s Day.

HBO embedded itself with the teams this week. In Pittsburgh on Wednesday, you could see a crew on the bench at the morning skate. You could see a crew in general manager Ray Shero’s box during the Penguins’ 5-2 victory over Toronto (a shame one wasn’t in Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke’s box, too). You could see a crew with superstar Sidney Crosby(notes) in the dressing room after the game.

“There’s four guys,” Crosby said. “You’ve got a camera guy, a guy holding the screen, a guy with a mic. I don’t know if they blend in, but I think that everyone’s kind of gotten used to it. …

“Some of us have dealt with that kind of thing before. It’s a little bit easier. But for some guys, it might have taken a couple days to get used to having a camera in your face while you’re tying your skates or eating your breakfast.”

The players have been told to act naturally. But that’s easier said than done. Some guys might self-censor. Some might go the other way.

“I think some guys like the camera,” Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik(notes) said, “so they maybe play up to it a little bit.”

Like who?

“I’ll refrain,” Orpik said with a smile. “It’ll be easy to figure out when you watch the show.”

OVERTIME

Before the NHL held the Winter Classic or the Heritage Classic – the Canadian outdoor game – there was the Cold War. Michigan and Michigan State began the outdoor hockey phenomenon back on Oct. 6, 2001, with a college game that drew 74,544 fans to Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich.

That was the world record for hockey attendance at the time, and a new world record is expected to be set Saturday when the schools meet again outdoors – this time in the Big Chill at the Big House, Michigan Stadium, in Ann Arbor, Mich. The game is sold out, and the stadium can hold more than 110,000 fans for football.

“It’s definitely going to be pretty special,” said Leafs defenseman Mike Komisarek(notes), who played at Michigan and is one of several NHLers who were on the ice for the Cold War. “It’s a memory that those guys will have for the rest of their lives. It’s a highlight. You never forget that game. You look back on it, to think 75,000 fans were watching and that they’re going to try to get over 100, 110 (thousand) this weekend, it’s just mindboggling.”

SHOOTOUT

The Sharks miss the retired Rob Blake(notes). Their young defensemen no longer have a role model, and one in particular no longer has his partner. “I think it’s evident on the back end that Marc-Edouard Vlasic(notes) isn’t having the same year without him,” McLellan said of the 23-year-old, who has zero points and a minus-6 rating in 27 games. The Sharks’ defense drops off dramatically after Dan Boyle. The Sharks tried to fill the hole in the offseason by pursuing Willie Mitchell(notes) and Niklas Hjalmarsson(notes), but they failed to land either one and will try to add someone before the Feb. 28 NHL trade deadline.

The Leafs’ record with Colby Armstrong(notes): 7-3-1. Their record without him: 3-10-3. “He’s a leader in the room, he finishes his checks and the other team inevitably knows he’s in the game and spends a lot of time talking to him throughout the game,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. “He’s got a lot of friends in the league.” When reporters laughed, Wilson showed he was dead serious. “No, it’s amazing,” he said.

When Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf(notes) returns tonight (as expected) against the Philadelphia Flyers, he needs to be a difference-maker. The Leafs are still struggling badly, despite squeaking out a couple of recent victories with late-game pushes, and Phaneuf was struggling badly himself before he sustained a deep leg laceration, with four assists and a minus-6 rating in 11 games. “When you’re off for this long, guys are in midseason form, so you’re coming back into that,” Phaneuf said. “So you’ve got to be ready to go.”

The plan is working well for the New York Rangers, who signed veteran goaltender Martin Biron(notes) to take some of the load off workhorse Henrik Lundqvist(notes). Biron has played nine games already and gone 5-2-0. His goals-against average (2.38) is actually better than Lundqvist’s (2.52), and Lundqvist is only 11-10-1. Lundqvist shouldn’t have to play 70 games for the fifth straight season. That should keep him fresh enough to steal a series should the Rangers make the playoffs.

Everyone is talking about Brad Richards(notes) going to the Rangers or elsewhere via trade or free agency. What everyone should be talking about instead is the crying shame it would be if the Dallas Stars can’t straighten out their ownership situation and find a way keep Richards. The Stars are in second place in a very tough Western Conference and have some up-and-coming young players. Richards can help an improving, contending team without going anywhere.

First, HD. Now, 3D is coming on Saturday night to CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada. If only we could all get new TVs.