San Jose in position to handle playoff foes

This is where the San Jose Sharks have to prove they have learned from the past.

While praise is being heaped on the team that is riding a franchise-record 10-game winning streak, the Sharks must realize tougher days, and their biggest bugaboo – overcoming adversities – are ahead.

Here are a few dates to circle: March 21 and March 27. That's when San Jose hosts Anaheim and Dallas, respectively. The Sharks are 0-3 at home against the Ducks (one loss in a shootout) and 0-3 at home against the Stars (outscored 11-5 in the process) this season. San Jose has dropped its last six each as hosts against Anaheim and Dallas, a ridiculous streak that dates back to early last season.

The Sharks' downfall in each of the last two postseasons has been their inability to rebound from adversity when they were otherwise in command of a second-round series. San Jose can't go back and replay Edmonton, which it led 2-0 in 2006, or Detroit, which it was within 30 seconds of taking a 3-1 lead last year. The Sharks eventually lost those series in six games.

But the Sharks can start to prove they are better equipped now with new personnel and a more mature attitude against Anaheim and Dallas, teams they face during four of their final 12 games, even if ultimately the true test comes in the postseason.

"It is a battle in that Pacific Division," said Joe Thornton, the team's leading scorer. "I believe we're going real good right now, and it's a good time to play those good teams and see how good we actually are."

Three key factors have put San Jose on track. First, Jonathan Cheechoo is healthy. Second, Patrick Marleau rediscovered his game. And last, the addition of defenseman Brian Campbell at the trade deadline added a new dimension to the team.

Cheechoo underwent double hernia surgery last offseason and he wasn't 100 percent at the start of the season.

Coach Ron Wilson moved Cheechoo down the lines because he needed more production from his top group and the former Rocket Richard Trophy winner needed to concentrate on other parts of his game to regain his confidence.

A groin injury, unrelated to his surgery, forced Cheechoo out for seven games and allowed more time for needed rest. When he returned in late December, Cheechoo started to resemble the player who scored a combined 93 goals from 2005-07. Cheechoo has eight goals in his past 13 games.

"We have as much confidence as we did as a pair when he won the Rocket Richard," Thornton said of Cheechoo. "Confidence is everything in this sport."

The public flogging Marleau suffered for a scoreless and poor defensive second-round series against the Red Wings carried into the early part of this season. But as he felt more assured he would not be traded at the deadline, Marleau's game started to come around.

It improved further when Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi were added as linemates. Marleau was playing with Steve Bernier and Marcel Goc beforehand, and there wasn't enough skill or speed to compliment Marleau's game. He has it now with Pavelski's offensive knack and Setoguchi's speed.

Marleau is riding a hot streak, with goals in three of his last four games before Tuesday.

Campbell has been the piece on the backline that general manager Doug Wilson has been trying to secure for a couple seasons. Dallas has Sergei Zubov (when healthy) and Anaheim has Scott Niedermayer. Both are puck-carrying defensemen who eat up big minutes. Some day Christian Ehrhoff, Marc-Edouard Vlasic or Matt Carle could be that player for the Sharks, but the franchise doesn't want to wait.

The GM could take some heat if Campbell flees via unrestricted free agency in the summer, considering Wilson had to part with a first-round draft pick and young forward Steve Bernier to acquire the 28-year-old rearguard (along with a seventh-round pick). But you have to like the team's track record with this sort of gamble. It doesn't take players, who don't know San Jose from St. Tropez, long to figure out good weather plus good team plus Joe Thornton equals a content situation.

Just ask Craig Rivet or Vincent Damphousse or Mike Ricci or Scott Thornton.

Campbell is a prototype new-NHL defenseman, where there's more emphasis on skating and use of the stick as opposed to size, strength and physical domination the pre-lockout game demanded from the position. Wilson got frustrated watching his team fail to play an uptempo style he envisioned. He's not looking to trade chances, just take the game to teams without surrendering anything on the defensive end.

Campbell's abilities, along with the consistent second-line scoring, allow the Sharks to finally play that way.

"He pushes the pace of the team," Thornton said of Campbell, both friends since childhood. "He's the kind of guy that makes our offense tick. He skates so well, he pushes the defenders back so far. He just opens up a little bit more space for us offensive players to do what we're supposed to do."

Until the Sharks recently got more players on board, it was goalie Evgeni Nabokov, rookie center Torrey Mitchell and Thornton who kept them within striking distance of their Pacific rivals. Winning the division has more advantages than the probable No. 2 seed in the West. Look for the second- and third-place teams in the Pacific to face as Nos. 4-5 seeds in the West. In other words, Anaheim, Dallas or San Jose will be out after Round 1.

Nabokov should be a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, if not the eventual winner. He made his career-tying 67th appearance Tuesday night.

Mitchell is the best rookie you haven't heard of. He won't get nearly as many votes for the Calder Trophy as Chicago's Patrick Kane or Jonathan Toews, but he's as valuable to his team this year as any rookie in the NHL.

Mitchell has blazing speed and great hockey sense. He triggers a third line that's as defensively responsible as any in the game. He and Mike Grier are tremendous penalty killers and both are threats to score short-handed. On the nights the first and second lines are neutralized, look for Mitchell to make a difference.

Thornton has simply been Thornton again. He's quietly climbed back into a scoring race he won two years ago and finished as runner-up last season. Thornton, 28, has appeared in all 207 games since being acquired from Boston (third longest current streak in the league) and has 287 points in that time (leading the league by far).

"I really do like the makeup of this team," Thornton said. "We can play any style, and that's what we're going to have to do in this year's playoffs. We've got to beat a lot of good teams. But I think we got the makeup to do that this year."