Sharks rally around Joe Thornton

TORONTO -- While the decision was made long ago, the timing could not have been better.

There were smiles galore on the faces of the San Jose Sharks players Wednesday as they practiced at the old Maple Leaf Gardens -- or the refurbished version of it now called the Mattamy Athletic Centre.

It's rare for visiting NHL teams to skate in this rink, but on this day it provided a little mental solace after another tough loss wrapped within an emotional past five days.

It was as if they had forgotten all their troubles once on the Gardens ice. At one point Joe Thornton and Marc-Edouard Vlasic were among four or five teammates hugging for joy in a mock goal celebration; letting loose as it were.

"You have to have fun," observed center Logan Couture after practice. "You can't come to the rink and be down on yourself every single day. That gets old. You got to come to the rink and still enjoy the game. You have to put it in perspective, you're playing in the NHL. You have to go out and compete every night and if you're not having fun playing hockey, things aren't going to go so well. We have to stay as upbeat as possible in this room."

These days that's harder than normal for a Sharks team that has made the playoffs 10 straight years, but before Wednesday's games was six points out of the last wild-card spot in the Western Conference and five points from third place in the Pacific Division.

The on-ice challenge for a Sharks team in transition this season was daunting enough without last Friday's public spat featuring Thornton and GM Doug Wilson added to the mix.

Wilson told reporters at the GMs meeting in Boca Raton, Florida, on Tuesday that things had been quickly patched up between him and Thornton, that it was already behind them.

To which Thornton responded Wednesday: "Yeah, it's all good. We're just focused on hockey now, it's all we can do."

Fair or not, people will look at how San Jose has fared since the Wilson/Thornton headliner -- a 6-2 loss at home to Chicago and then Tuesday night's 5-2 loss at Winnipeg, a team the Sharks are trying to catch in the standings -- as proof that the team is distracted.

"Our play is our play. I don't think the outside incident affects what goes on in here," Sharks head coach Todd McLellan said Wednesday. "In fact, it should galvanize the group. They should play for Joe and Joe should play for them. We've all got a job to do."

Certainly if there was one clear and identifiable emotion expressed by Sharks players Wednesday, it's that they're solidly behind Thornton in what appears to be a close-knit dressing room.

"We all support Jumbo," Couture said. "He's worked as hard as anyone on this team for a long time. It's my sixth season with Jumbo, I respect him so much as a person and as a player. Whatever happened, happened. We're moving past it. But every player in this room supports Jumbo."

Echoed Vlasic: "The room is very tight. Jumbo is one of our leaders as are a number of other guys. This is a tight group."

The fact is, Thornton has held up his end of the bargain this season, playing his butt off, once again one of the NHL's premier and consistent performers, tied for fourth in the NHL with 46 assists before Wednesday's games.

Last spring's playoff meltdown to the Kings and the subsequent stripping of the captaincy in the summer must have created some residual, emotional baggage no matter what anyone says.

Overcoming all the events of last spring and summer as an organization -- from top to bottom -- has certainly been part of this season's adversity.

"It's been a challenge, but it's our job to just play and try to park all distractions," said veteran winger Patrick Marleau. "I think for the most part we've been pretty good at it this year."

It just so happens that last week's flare-up came just before the team headed off for a seven-game trip, which included stops in Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Detroit, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, strong hockey media centers.

So the Sharks knew they'd have to answer these questions on this trip. The ability to tune out the white noise is what every pro athlete has to deal with, and the Sharks are no different, said McLellan.

"No matter what happens, we all have issues at home at some point, we have issues within the family, we have issues at work at the rink, you're still evaluated on your performance and that's what's important," said the Sharks coach. "We know we're going to get asked all these questions. We know we have to face and answer the media. But when the clock starts tomorrow [Thursday], it's about performance. And sometimes your performance can help alleviate those situations. We haven't performed well enough to alleviate it yet."

Winning cures all, this is forever true.

A win over the ailing Maple Leafs here on Thursday night is step No. 1 for the Sharks.

"I believe we have a team in here that can knock off a lot of wins in a row. Get one and get rolling and feel good," said Couture.

"Right now we have two battles: the mental battle and the physical battle," added McLellan. "The physical one I think we'll overcome with rest on the road. But the mental battle is staying in the fight and preparing to play. We've put ourselves in a situation where we're cheering for other teams. That's usually not a good sign. But if you take care of business, who knows what's going to happen elsewhere. That's all we can do."