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Shark Alert After an early-season gut check, San Jose is showing its teeth again

With a dismal 1-5-3-0 record and their prospects for a
bounce-back season fading faster than a winter sunset, the Sharks
held a players-only meeting before their Oct. 30 match at Tampa
Bay. On a roster that lacks superstars, two struggling but
talented young forwards, center Patrick Marleau, 24, and left
wing Marco Sturm, 25, were singled out by some of the team's
veterans as the players San Jose needed to lead the way. "It's
funny now because we're winning," says Sturm, who had a
career-high 28 goals last season but only two through the first
nine games this year. "It wasn't funny then."

That meeting was the turning point for the Sharks, who are one of
the league's hottest teams. Impressive back-to-back wins over
Western Conference powerhouses Vancouver and Colorado last week
kept the Sharks in first place in the Pacific Division and made
them 19-6-7-4 since Nov. 1. San Jose, which finished 2002-03 with
the second-fewest points (73) in the conference despite having
been one of the preseason favorites to reach the Stanley Cup
finals, is primed for a trip to the playoffs.

"We didn't think we'd be as bad [at the start of the season] as
everyone said we'd be," says coach Ron Wilson, who took over for
the fired Darryl Sutter in December 2002. "But I'd be a liar if I
said I thought we'd be in first place halfway through the

The Sharks have been helped by a balanced attack; the return to
form of goalie Evgeni Nabokov, the 2000-01 Calder Trophy winner,
who struggled last season after missing training camp because of
a contract dispute; and a more aggressive penalty-killing unit
that was the league's third-best through Sunday (87.3%). Mostly,
though, San Jose has been sparked by Marleau (team-leading 19
goals) and Sturm (13 goals, 11 assists). The 6'2", 220-pound
Marleau, who was the second pick in the 1997 draft, is finally
fulfilling expectations, in part because he's playing a more
physical game in front of the net. He's been energized since
Wilson benched him for nearly half a game for a lack of hustle
against the Bruins on Nov. 6.

"Our young guys are taking on the roles we envisioned for them,"
says Wilson. "We told [Marleau], whether he likes it or not, this
is now his team, and he's playing like it is."

COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS CARLSON/AP Forced to take a leadership role by Wilson (inset), Marleau ledSan Jose on a 19-6-7-4 tear.