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Captain Comeback

Marleau relocates his mojo as Sharks surge in Pacific

Posted: Monday March 24, 2008 6:01PM; Updated: Tuesday March 25, 2008 4:03PM
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Sign of life: After hustling to make a game-saving defensive play, Patrick Marleau iced the Wild with a shootout goal on March 9.
Sign of life: After hustling to make a game-saving defensive play, Patrick Marleau iced the Wild with a shootout goal on March 9.
Bruce Kluckhohn/Getty Images
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Let's go back to Feb. 26, a significant day in any number of NHL lives. At 2:59 p.m., Sharks captain Patrick Marleau was eating a sandwich with his teammates in the visitors' locker room at Nationwide Arena in Columbus. At 3:01 p.m., the trade deadline now officially past, Marleau was still eating a sandwich. And he was still a Shark.

"You look around the room, see the guys you're with, see what a good group it is," Marleau recalled. "Sure, it's a good feeling."

Nor has that feeling faded. The Sharks have earned points in 15 straight games, winning 14 of them. They've taken control of the Pacific Division -- a 2-1 win over those still mighty Ducks last Friday night assured them of that -- and they have reaffirmed themselves as serious Stanley Cup contenders. The 27-year-old Marleau, so astonishingly ineffective for so much of the season, has been reborn, scoring 11 points in the 13 games since the deadline, netting the winning goal in three straight games, and -- perhaps most remarkably --discovering his defensive vigor.

San Jose may have made the NHL's best deadline move -- between bites of lunch meat, Marleau and the Sharks saw on their clubhouse TV that dashing defenseman Brian Campbell was on his way to San Jose from Buffalo -- but the deal they did not make could turn out to be the season-saver.

"Since the deadline, Patty has been more relaxed. That's raised his game, and the team's," says Sharks coach Ron Wilson. "He's skating harder. There were times this season when he was standing around out there, times I'd kind of smack myself on the head and say. Why? "

Marleau attributes his renaissance largely to being deployed as the center between wingers Joe Pavelski (a pure-bred puckhound) and swift rookie Devon Segotuchi. It's a line that fell into place only after forward Steve Bernier was dealt for Campbell, yet Marleau's resurgence is equally traceable to matters of will and confidence, both of which had eroded since last spring. In a second-round playoff series against Detroit, Marleau had no points in six games, was a -5, and, most dramatically, got caught out of position when the Red Wings scored in the final minute of Game 4 to turn the series.

"Unless you're a corpse, playing a series like that has to have some lingering impact," says Wilson.

Marleau, bearing the burden, couldn't seem to recover. After averaging 82 points the previous two years, he had 29 in this season's first 58 games. His plus/minus dipped to -21, among the five worst in the league. Trade rumors began in November; by mid-February they were de rigueur.

A trade, even for a highly-paid athlete, can be traumatic. Campbell, for example, cried. For Marleau, it would have been like being ripped from the womb. Drafted second overall in 1997, he never played a minor-league shift before debuting with the Sharks later that year. Marleau met a girl from San Jose (Christina, who was working in the Sharks ticket department) and married her in a local wedding in 2004, In the fall of 2006, the couple had a baby boy. San Jose, says Marleau, could be his home long after his career is done.

If the Sharks go on to win the Cup this year -- they were SI's preseason pick and there's no reason to change that now -- one Marleau moment in particular may stand out as a rallying point. Not his two-goals against Ottawa, nor his game-winning wrist shot versus Chicago, but rather a March 9 overtime play in Minnesota. Trailing the play, Marleau chased hard to try to defuse a Wild 2-on 1. He got to the Sharks' goal-mouth in time to bat the puck out of mid-air and harm's way. Minutes later, his shootout goal secured the win.

"There's no way Patty would have made that play early this year," says Wilson. "It's not that he knocked it out of the air, it's that he got himself there."

The captain, quite literally, was back.