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"C" Minus

After costly gaffes in two straight postseasons, is Patrick Marleau the right man to captain the Sharks?

DALLAS CENTERMike Modano didn't realize anything out of the ordinary had occurred until thenext day at a Stars video session when his teammates began hooting at the imageof Sharks captain Patrick Marleau. In the playoffs a captain is supposed tostep up, to borrow a mindless sports-talk phrase, but in Game 1 of asecond-round series last April, Marleau had stepped up with both feet,bunny-hopping over Modano's point shot that skimmed the ice as it threadedthrough a thicket of legs and got past goalie Evgeni Nabokov for Dallas's firstgoal in a 3--2 win. (The Stars would take the series in six games.) Leaping isan acceptable autonomic response for, say, a Green Bay Packer, but not for theleader of a hockey team that can't seem to get out of its own way in theplayoffs.

Marleau's jumpwas a potential reputation-killer, especially because he'd been caught out ofposition in the last minute of a playoff game against Detroit the previousspring, a gaffe that led to a Wings goal and changed the course of the series.With a new coach in San Jose, former Detroit assistant Todd McLellan, thisoff-season seemed the perfect time to relieve Marleau of the burden of thecaptaincy and give it to Joe Thornton, who, as a Bruins captain, once played aseven-game series with torn rib cartilage. But when the Sharks opened theseason last Thursday—Marleau had an assist in a win over Anaheim—the C wasaffixed as firmly as ever to Marleau's number 12 sweater.

"I'mcomfortable enough with Patty as captain," said McLellan. "And I'mconfident enough he'll make the right decisions based on the needs of theteam."

Marleau, 29, isoften described as the whole package—the 6'2", 220-pound center "mightbe the fastest skater in the league," Thornton says—but like a nestingdoll, he has several layers. For all the flak Marleau's caught for his untimelybrain cramps, his 24 playoff goals since 2004 are second (with Calgary wingerJarome Iginla's) to Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg's. And after getting vaporizedby the Flames' Cory Sarich in Game 3 of last season's first round, Marleauplayed some of his most determined hockey, mitigating a miserable regularseason in which he scored only 19 goals and had a ‚àí19 rating. His play then wasso spotty that he addressed Sharks players in February, excoriating himself andvowing to do better. According to Thornton, Marleau earned currency with thatshow of leadership.

As for seeming toavoid rather than block Modano's shot, Marleau says he was too far fromModano's release (25 feet) and was anticipating a rising shot, althoughpresumably the puck would have struck his shin or thigh pad in any case. SaidSharks forward Jeremy Roenick last week, "It's a situation he would havetaken back if he could, but [when Modano] winds up you think first about yourwell-being."

McLellan decidedto wipe the slate clean. "I believe he'll have a good year," the coachsaid of Marleau. "I see him smiling a lot. I think that will translate intopositive results." Coaching a Stanley Cup contender, McLellan better beright.

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INNER CIRCLE Marleau (12) has the support of Thornton (inset), a former captain.



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