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Sharks pushed to the brink of playoff extinction

First, the big picture questions, in their probable order of importance, to the floundering San Jose Sharks, as they come to grips with the fact that they are one loss away from playoff elimination:

1. Will team captain Joe Thornton be ready and able to play in Tuesday's potentially deciding game of the Western Conference final, after leaving Sunday's 4-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks with a shoulder injury of undisclosed severity? Coach Todd McLellan had no update on Thornton's condition immediately afterward, which is probably not a good sign. Thornton, the team's leading playoff scorer, was injured after the Canucks' Raffi Torres caught him with a shoulder-to-shoulder check by the boards deep in the San Jose zone. Thornton was turned the wrong way, didn't see the contact coming; and wasn't available at the end as the Sharks made a furious push for the tying goal.

2. Can the Sharks put Sunday's peculiar contest behind them, in which they received the first five power-play opportunities of the game and the Canucks the next five? McLellan talked about how the game was played in three phases and he had it bang on. If San Jose had done more with the man advantage during Phase 1, then maybe they wouldn't have crippled by the results Phase 2 - the three power-play goals scored by Vancouver in a 1:55 span of the second period, all on 5-on-3s. In Phase 3, the Sharks played pretty well, but as defenceman Dan Boyle noted afterward, it is easy to play well once a game reaches the nothing-to-lose stage, where you can gamble with impudence, knowing it doesn't matter much one way or the other if you get scored upon.

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3. Will there ever be a time when the run of play in this series happens at even strength, just to see what the top two teams in the Western Conference can do, in a game not decided by special teams play?

Question 3 is naturally more for the aesthetes, who include among their number, the Sharks' Ryane Clowe, a plain-spoken Newfoundlander. Clowe was as puzzled as anyone by a series in which 15 of the 29 goals have been scored with the man advantage, including the first three in yesterday afternoon's game. All the conspiracy theorists muttering dark threats about the Canucks not getting a fair shake from referees Kelly Sutherland and Eric Furlatt needed to make a quick about-face when the penalty parade completely reversed.

"You got guys trying to get in the game, but when you've got that many power plays and PKs going back and forth, it takes the rhythm and momentum out of the game," assessed Clowe.

"I can't remember a series with this many penalties. It's crazy. Then all of a sudden, in the third, it's 'OK, we're going to let you guys play.' It makes no sense to me."

The penalty-filled game hearkened back to the first days of the post-lockout era, when eliminating obstruction was the NHL's most pressing goal. The unhappy byproduct of that watchfulness is to minimize the game's natural ebb and flow. Vancouver and San Jose were the top two power-play teams in the league this season for a reason, so their relative successes with the man advantage are not unexpected. The larger problem for the Sharks was how well Vancouver adjusted its penalty killing, after surrendering goals on San Jose's first five power-play chances of the series.

"They tightened things up," said McLellan. "They stood at the line a little better. But when you look at our execution, our passing, our face-offs, our opportunities to win pucks, when you're against the No. 1 penalty kill in the league, you have to be sharp - and we weren't."

So it's back-to-the-drawing board for the Sharks today. They'll practice here Monday morning, get an update on Thornton and then fly in to Vancouver to assess what's left in the tank Tuesday for a potentially deciding fifth game of the series. If Thornton can't play - or tries to go at less than 100 per cent - they'll need more from Dany Heatley and others to stay alive. McLellan isn't sugar-coating the challenge at hand, but isn't raising the white flag either.

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"We've got a tough task ahead of us," said McLellan, "but Vancouver knows, we know, Detroit knows, Chicago knows that anything can happen."

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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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