McLellan has Sharks playing great hockey

TERRY KOSHAN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:12 AM ET

Joe Thornton knows this shouldn't be happening.

But there are the San Jose Sharks, sitting on top of the National Hockey League standings with 41 points, thanks to winning a whopping 20 of their first 24 games.

"Did I think we could go 20-3-1 to start the season?" the Sharks' alternate captain said yesterday from San Jose in a telephone interview. "No one in their right mind would have thought we could. But that's more because there is supposed to be so much parity in the league. On paper, I knew we were going to have a darn good team, but nothing matters on paper."

Why are the Sharks firing on all cylinders? New coach Todd McLellan has made a seamless transition after Ron Wilson was fired last spring. The defence, with newcomers Dan Boyle and Rob Blake in charge, has been excellent, and Thornton probably was right when he called it the best group in the league right now.

The Sharks have scored the most goals in the NHL with 92. And, with 57 against, only the Boston Bruins, who have allowed 55, have given up fewer.

"We're a team," Thornton said. "We don't have three or four guys who are going out and getting a million points on the power play. It's everybody.

"It was nothing Ronnie did, because we had winning teams. The guys just needed a new voice and that's what Todd is. When he came in, it was black and white from the first day, with no grey. The guys appreciate that."

Wilson and the Maple Leafs, with Brian Burke scrutinizing every shift, are in San Jose tomorrow night after playing the Kings in Los Angeles tonight. The Leafs will need more than a bit of luck to beat the Sharks, who lose in regulation about as often as Axl Rose releases a new record. Since Oct. 24, just once have the Sharks skated off the ice after 60 minutes as losers.

It's Wilson's first game back in the Shark Tank.

"Ronnie did a lot for the Sharks," Thornton said. "I would think that he will get a warm welcome."

BOLTS JOLTED

Life possibly could get worse for members of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Interim coach Rick Tocchet has failed to make a big impact since taking over from Barry Melrose, who was fired 16 games into the season.

In seven games with Tocchet behind the bench, the Lightning has mustered up one win, with three of its six losses coming in shootouts. After its latest loss, a 4-3 fall to the Avalanche in Colorado on Saturday, Tocchet was steaming mad.

"This is a business and I think our patience is running thin on some people," Tocchet said. "We had about five or six guys lay eggs and it's not good enough. Life is going to get miserable around here. It's almost like some guys are collecting a paycheque right now and that's a sad statement."

Tampa made a trade yesterday, acquiring right winger Lauri Tukonen from the Dallas Stars, with defenceman Andrew Hutchinson heading to Texas.

But how much will that help a club that's in last place in the Eastern Conference? Vincent Lecavalier signed an 11-year contract in the summer and is going nowhere. Martin St. Louis, on the other hand, is under contract for two more seasons after this one, at $5.25 million US against the cap in each. The team is in major disarray. General manager Brian Lawton should be trying to find out what he could get for St. Louis.

ICE CHIPS

The Buffalo Sabres might be left holding the bag with winger Maxim Afinogenov, one of the great underachievers in the NHL. Afinogenov has one goal in 21 games, is a team-worst minus-10 and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. The 29-year-old is pulling in $3.5 million this season, and although the Sabres will have paid the majority of that by the trade deadline, getting anything more than bag of pucks would be a bonus ... With 66 hits, Leafs' Luke Schenn is leading rookie defencemen by a country mile (Luca Sbisa of the Philadelphia Flyers is second with 32) and was 13th overall in the NHL ... The Detroit Red Wings' power-play success rate is at 32.3%. No team since the 1978-79 New York Islanders, at 31.2%, has finished the season higher than 30% on the power play.

THE WEEK AHEAD

Two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference meet in Manhattan on Wednesday when the Pittsburgh Penguins visit the New York Rangers. Not that he needed to be inspired, but since being called out by the Washington Capitals' Alexander Semin, Sidney Crosby has 21 points in 12 games ... The Ottawa Senators, struggling in a large way, get the Atlanta Thrashers' Ilya Kovalchuk on Wednesday and Crosby on Saturday. We wish them well.

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ON THE FARM

THE RECORD

GAMES: 20 STREAK: Won 1

WINS: 9 LOSSES 9

OT/SO: 2 POINTS 20

STANDING: 5th North Division

TLUSTY TO THE RESCUE

Jiri Tlusty scored once in regulation and added the winner in the eighth round of the shootout as the Marlies downed the Rochester Americans 4-3.

Marlies goaltender Justin Pogge stopped five of eight Rochester shootout attempts to preserve the victory for Toronto in front of 3,722 at the Ricoh Coliseum. The Marlies ended a two-game losing skid after dropping consecutive road games.

"They've got a really good team and we thought we could come and walk all over them and that wasn't the case. We had to get our butts in gear in the second half," the Marlies Jeremy Williams said.

Rochester watched a late lead slip away as it remained winless in 10 road games this season. Sunday's single point was the first the Americans have earned on the road.

POINTS LEADERS

G A P

Kris Newbury 5 14 19

Tim Stapleton 4 15 18

Jeremy Williams 10 2 12

Mark Bell 3 8 10

Staffan Kronwall 3 6 9

THIS WEEK

Friday -- at Grand Rapids Griffins, 7 p.m.; Saturday -- vs. Milwaukee Admirals, 7 p.m.; Sunday -- at Hamilton Bulldogs, 5 p.m.

THE PROSPECTS

LEAFS PROSPECT OF THE WEEK

MATT FRATTIN

RW, 20, U OF NORTH DAKOTA

Sophomore winger doubled his point total on Friday night with three goals and an assist as the Fighting Sioux knocked off previously unbeaten Cornell 7-3. The six-foot, 200-pound Edmonton native was taken by the Leafs in the fourth round of the 2007 draft.

TOP SCORERS

U.S COLLEGE PROSPECTS

GP G A P

Chad Rau 16 9 12 21

C, 21, COLORADO COLLEGE

Alex Berry 12 5 9 14

RW, 22, UMASS-AMHERST

Viktor Stalberg 14 6 7 13

LW, 22, U. OF VERMONT

Tyler Ruegsegger 15 6 3 9

RW, 20, U. OF DENVER

Jimmy Hayes 11 6 2 8

RW, 19, BOSTON COLLEGE


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