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Who'd have figured this a week ago, with the San Jose Sharks dangling on the ropes like some punch-drunk fighter - that they would be the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round of the NHL playoffs?

But there they were, rattling off three in a row against the Colorado Avalanche, a team that ran out of steam in a big way. Over the final five games of the series, the Sharks pummelled 100 more shots at goaltender Craig Anderson than the Avs managed against his opposite number, Evgeni Nabokov, who was steady as she goes in this series - not great, but good enough.

Even at that, it looked as if it the series might go seven until some 11th-hour heroics from Dan Boyle and Joe Pavelski saved the Sharks from the ignominy of losing out to an eighth-seed for the second year in a row.

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Much of the Sharks' playoff future hinges on what comes next - specifically, can the Nashville Predators find a way to win two in a row from the Chicago Blackhawks after a heart-breaking defeat Saturday in a game which they led right until the final minute?

San Jose would never publicly pick its poison, but if the options are Nashville - a team they've previously had success against in playoffs past - or the Detroit Red Wings, you can be sure which opponent they'd prefer. Any amount of time off now might help the Sharks' struggling Dany Heatley recover from whatever that undisclosed injury they're not talking about is.

As for Joe Thornton, he just looks like an extremely unhappy guy, desperately waiting for something to go his way. Overshadowed by Little Joe Pavelski in the opening round (the young American had eight points compared to Thornton's three), Big Joe now gets another round to salvage his playoff reputation, a prospect that looked in doubt just one week ago.

You gotta have Hart

The Hart Trophy finalists will be announced Thursday and the question there is, does a goalie, namely the Buffalo Sabres' Ryan Miller crack the top three? Or is it a race among the Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby, the Washington Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin and the Vancouver Canucks' Henrik Sedin?

Some years, the Hart is easy to pick, but not this year, given the groundswell of support for Sedin's candidacy in the final week, when ballots were distributed - and the seeming backlash against Ovechkin because of the success the Caps had in his 10-game regular-season absence.

If playoffs counted, Crosby be the odds-on favourite given how he's elevated his game in the postseason - and there is a still a pretty decent chance that he will win anyway, which would give him two Harts to go with Ovechkin's pair.

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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