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Sharks emerge as legitimate Cup favorite

Joe Pavelski and the San Jose Sharks are currently No. 6 in the Western Conference. Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Because they're competitive and led by a coach in Todd McLellan who despises losing and a forward in Joe Pavelski who saw a chance at perfection, the San Jose Sharks left New York unhappy Monday night. They didn't play well in a 5-2 loss to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden and ended their six-game road trip on a sour note.

But when the disappointment of the single loss eases, the Sharks can look at this stretch of road games as the time they affirmed what we all expected this past summer -- they are as real a Stanley Cup contender as there is in the NHL.

When they began their road trip, the Sharks had just one win in four games, but GM Doug Wilson wasn't ready to evaluate his team even if some of us wondered whether it was suffering from the same kind of playoff hangover that hit the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks early on this season. He didn't necessarily agree with the phrasing when I asked him about the Sharks' early struggles to start the season.

"When you say early struggles -- opening night we played great," Wilson said during a Monday afternoon phone conversation. "We had a couple games -- three games we played OK. Ten games is really a judge of where your team is, not an aberration of two or three games."

So now the judging begins on the team we picked to win the Stanley Cup. The Sharks are 6-4 through 10 games and currently sit as the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference. They finished a grueling road trip 5-1, including impressive victories against the Bruins and Detroit Red Wings. San Jose has the most wins of any of the four teams that advanced to the conference finals last season.

"We look at 10-game segments, and the reality of it is we think we're trending in the right direction," Wilson said. "We think we're playing the way we're capable of. We expect to get better."

The road trip showed just why the Sharks will be dangerous come playoff time. One of the issues with the Sharks early on in McLellan's tenure was that they were built to be successful by focusing on one style of play. That meant the Sharks were successful against some teams but struggled against others, so playoff success hinged on facing the right opponent.

The Sharks now have evolved into a team capable of beating any style of play, and they showed it on this trip.

They can roll out size and physical play with Brad Winchester, Douglas Murray and Andrew Murray that allows them to manhandle a team like the Red Wings, which they've done now for a couple of years. The speed of Patrick Marleau, Martin Havlat, Torrey Mitchell and Andrew Desjardins allows the Sharks to play with faster teams. When the spring gets here, more than ever, it'll be less about whom the Sharks are playing than how they're playing.

"We can play any way we want to play," Wilson said. "We've got a big team, but we've got skill. Sometimes you have to play different ways. We know systematically how we want to play. We have a big, physical team, and we're very comfortable in that style of game."

The new additions are fitting in well with the Sharks. Defenseman Brent Burns, who struggled at times defensively against the Rangers on Monday, is still a plus-5 this season and has five points in 10 games with the Sharks. Havlat, acquired for Dany Heatley in one of the summer trades with the Wild, has five points in six games. He's still looking for his first goal. Wilson also mentioned Michal Handzus as a player he's been impressed with. The 6-foot-5 center has two goals this season and is winning 53.8 percent of his faceoffs, just one of two Sharks (Joe Thornton) winning more than 50 percent of those battles this season.

The Sharks go home a little disappointed but headed in the right direction.

"The road trip has been good, but we can play even better," Wilson said.

Notes

• The Sharks advanced to the Western Conference finals last season, but the organization thinks it had to exert too much energy just to make the playoffs last season, costing it a real shot at winning the Stanley Cup. "It wasn't a scramble, let's be honest," Wilson said. "We were in 12th place in mid-January." That's why earning points early on in the season and on their recent road trip was so crucial to the Sharks. They don't want a repeat of last season. "It gets tougher as it goes forward," Wilson said. "In the Western Conference, it is so tough that you'd better play well soon. You can't wait and do what we did last year. That came with a cost."

• Give the Professional Hockey Writers Association, Zack Hill and the Philadelphia Flyers' PR staff a lot of credit for quickly correcting what could have turned into an ugly situation in Philadelphia. It was decided that Ilya Bryzgalov would be unavailable to the media the day before starts -- as well as the morning skate before a start -- a decision apparently spurred by Bryzgalov's comments after the ugly loss to the Winnipeg Jets last week. The Philadelphia chapter of the PHWA immediately filed a grievance with the NHL and worked internally with the league to voice its displeasure. Hill was able to restore proper media access to Bryzgalov, who still won't talk on the morning of games, which is fairly typical for starting goalies. Flyers fans deserve a chance to hear what Bryzgalov has to say about his play and his team. It sounds as though they will continue to get that opportunity.

• Latvian prospect Zemgus Girgensons is getting pressure to leave the USHL to instead play junior hockey in Canada, but he reiterated the stance to Ryan Clark that he intends to continue developing his game in the USHL. "I don't see my future in the CHL," Girgensons told Clark. "[Kelowna] drafted me and didn't say anything to me about it. After that, I felt they disrespected me a little bit. They pushed it a little bit onto my adviser, and I don't think he really liked it."

• Stephen Harris of the Boston Herald doesn't see a trade coming for the Bruins, nor does he think a trade is the appropriate solution for the underachieving team. He says it's up to the current team to turn things around.

• According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Sidney Crosby won't make his season debut on the Pittsburgh Penguins' West Coast trip this week. The date more and more people are pointing to for a possible Crosby return is Nov. 11 at home against the Dallas Stars.

• While NBA owners and players fight over the division of revenue, Helene Elliott of the L.A. Times wonders whether we're seeing a preview of the coming NHL collective bargaining agreement negotiations. NBA owners want a 50-50 split of revenues. In the NHL, players got 57 percent of revenues last season. NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr told Elliott he's following the NBA talks but doesn't see it impacting future NHL negotiations too much. "Even though we use the same terms in all the sports, like compensation and free agency, they don't mean the same thing," Fehr said. "And the economics of all four are different. I think there are self-contained negotiations."