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Sharks look scary good, again San Jose hopes this is its year

Is this the year?

To the NHL, that's a marketing slogan. For the San Jose Sharks, it's a legitimate question. Is this the year they finally win the Stanley Cup?

"Yes" seems like a popular answer. The Sharks, longtime Cup contenders, appear poised to finally reach the finals. They're regarded as the top team in the NHL after dropping Boston earlier this week, and many assumed they were the best even before that. If they have a weakness, good luck finding it.

The Buffalo Sabres and their fans can try tonight when the Sharks visit HSBC Arena.

"They've had a very, very strong team for a number of years," Sabres captain Craig Rivet said Thursday. "They're at a point with that organization that they're looking to win a Stanley Cup, and they're looking to win it now."

Rivet knows the Sharks better than anyone in Buffalo. He used to be one. The defenseman spent parts of two seasons in San Jose, including all of 2007-08. The Sharks were second in the league with 108 points, but a third straight loss in the second round of the playoffs left them wanting more.

They're proving it. San Jose is off to a 37-7-8 start, and its 82 points are three fewer than the Bruins with three fewer games played.

"If they're not the best, somebody's going to have to point to a team that's going better than they are," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said.

It's tough to decide where to start with the Sharks. The forwards are piling up points. The revamped defense is protecting its net and storming the other one. The goaltender is an All-Star.

They rank third in goals per game (3.36), third in goals allowed (2.31), third in power-play success (23.4 percent) and third in penalty killing (86 percent).

Not too hard to figure out why they're so good, huh?

"It's going to be an extremely tough team to play against," Rivet said. "They're a well-rounded hockey team right now, and we're going to have to play our best to be able to compete with these guys."

The Sharks reconfigured their blue line in the offseason, and it's worked. They shipped Rivet to Buffalo and lost Brian Campbell to free agency, and they inserted Dan Boyle and Rob Blake in their place.

Boyle, acquired from Tampa Bay, is a Norris Trophy candidate. He's fourth in scoring among defensemen with 40 points, including 13 goals. He has a plus-12 rating while averaging more than 24 minutes per night.

The 39-year-old Blake is rejuvenated with a contender. After a pair of lackluster seasons in Los Angeles, he's responded with 32 points (already one more than last year) and a plus-14 rating.

The forwards feature Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, who rank in the top 12 with 58 and 56 points, respectively. Ryan Clowe's 20 goals anchor the second line, and Jonathan Cheechoo joins ex-Sabre Mike Grier to provide scoring potential and grit on the third line. Claude Lemieux, the 43-year-old who was out of the league for five seasons, has worked his way back and brings the experience of four Cups to the dressing room.

The wealth of riches extends to the crease, where Evgeni Nabokov is 28-6-6 with a 2.41 goals-against average.

The Sabres, though, have a few things going for them. The Sharks are in their first slump of the season with a 1-1-3 record in the past five games. Although they took Thursday off, they may also be tired. They are playing their third game in four nights, and the previous two -- a 5-2 victory in Boston and the shootout loss to Pittsburgh -- were highly anticipated affairs.

Buffalo also is eager to expunge the memory of Wednesday's ugly 3-1 loss to Ottawa. Beating the best would do that.

"Right now it's all about getting on a roll and winning hockey games," Rivet said. "That's the main focus. We're playing one of the best teams in the league, if not the best team in the league right now. We need to play up to standard. We need to play much better than what we did last game and go in the right direction."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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