Credit to Hitchcock for Sharp play

TERRY KOSHAN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:29 AM ET

When Ken Hitchcock was trying to get a complete hockey player out of Patrick Sharp, he probably did not foresee a day when Sharp might help put the screws to his hockey club.

Sharp has skated under the radar with the Chicago Blackhawks thanks to the dual presence of fine young rookies Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. But Sharp, a 26-year-old Thunder Bay native who played college hockey at Vermont, is making a case that he will be as much as a cornerstone in the Windy City as Toews and Kane.

Sharp's 33 goals, including seven short-handed and seven for game-winners, were among the NHL's surprises going into last night. Sharp was a plus-18, the best among Chicago forwards.

Sharp was clear that he wouldn't be lighting up the NHL had he not learned under the stern hand of Hitchcock, who coached Sharp with the Philadelphia Flyers before both men made separate moves to the Central Division, where Sharp's Blackhawks and Hitchcock's Columbus Blue Jackets are rivals.

"He was on me pretty good, but he taught me to compete," Sharp said in a telephone interview. "I wouldn't trade having played for him for anything. He made me into an NHL player. Every day, it was demanding. We have a good relationship, and I make sure to talk to him whenever we play Columbus."

The 'Hawks and Blue Jackets were among the Western Conference teams trying to stay afloat in the playoff race.

"I've been here three years and this is the first time we're playing meaningful games in March," Sharp said. "We want to make the playoffs, but (if not), we know we're putting together a good core here."

NASLUND TO GO FREE?

Markus Naslund could be heading into his final weeks as a Vancouver Canuck.

The Canucks have made no effort to re-sign their captain, who is slated to be an unrestricted free agent in July.

Making $6 million US in 2007-08, Naslund has 47 points in 67 games. Has he thought about the apparent lack of interest from his employers?

"I have, but I'm not going to comment until after the year is over," Naslund said. "We'll see. I'd just rather leave it at that."

ICE CHIPS

When he made 40 saves in a 2-0 shutout against the Ottawa Senators on Thursday night, Erik Ersberg of the Los Angeles Kings became the first rookie goalie to make at least 40 stops in a shutout since Mike Fountain did it for the Canucks in 1996. Ersberg, who turns 26 today, never was drafted and was signed out of Sweden by the Kings last May ... Darren McCarty is expected to return to the Detroit Red Wings on Monday. McCarty has been making a comeback with Grand Rapids of the AHL ... The Flyers probably will let captain Jason Smith go via free agency this summer. If that happens, observers in Philly think Mike Richards will be named captain.


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