All-Star games, division championships, Conference Final appearance, a rift with a head coach, injuries, minus-19 plus/minus for a full season, captaincy, captaincy taken away, trade rumors, home-town fans blaming him for the team failures—being the hero and being the goat are just some of the ups and downs Patrick Marleau has experienced during his career.
The undoubted face of the Sharks over the last decade was the hero during the 2003-04 season, when they won their first Western Conference Final appearance in their history. Marleau posted a solid eight goals and four assists in the 17 playoff games that year, including a hat trick in each of the first two rounds.
However, in the 2006-07 season, Marleau became the goat. In the Western Conference Semi-final match-up against the Detroit Red Wings, the Sharks captain failed to register a single point and finished a minus-five for the series. Furthermore, it was his poor defensive positioning towards the end of Game Four that allowed the Red Wings to tie the score in the last minute of the third period. Had the Sharks won the game, they would have taken a 3-1 lead in the series.
The defensive lapse in particular increased the rift between Marleau and then head coach Ron Wilson, who essentially called out his captain to the media for playing poorly.
A year later, the Sharks captain had the worst regular season of his career. Marleau finished with just 48 points, his fewest since 2001-02, and a career-low minus-19 plus/minus rating.
Although Marleau bounced back in the playoffs with eight points in 13 games—including two short-handed goals—the Sharks were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs for the third year in a row.
Luckily for Marleau, the team's poor performance caused management to fire coach Ron Wilson and replace him with former Red Wing assistant Todd McLellan.
Despite the fresh start, fans were still ripping the team's center for an absolutely abysmal regular season the previous year.
With doubters questioning his abilities, Marleau proved them wrong by delivering a career-high in goals, bouncing back with 38 last season. Playing most of the year alongside Joe Thornton and Devin Setoguchi, Marleau totaled 71 points, an increase of 23, and a plus-16 rating, an improvement of 35 in the that category.
Unfortunately for the Sharks, last year's tremendous regular season ended with a stream of injuries, causing the team to stumble to the finish line. Marleau, as well as Rob Blake and Mike Grier, were not 100 percent healthy when the postseason began and the eighth-seeded Ducks dominated the six-game Quarter-final series, beating the Sharks four games to two.
Flash-forward to this season, and two more offseason gifts were awarded to Marleau.
First, he simply lost his role as captain. After the coaching staff removed the "C" from his jersey, Marleau naturally became free of responsibility. No longer did he have to explain the team failures to the media.
The second offseason gift was the arrival of Dany Heatley. With the all-star sniper to play on Thornton's left-side, Marleau can now play on the second line and face the opposing team's second-best defensive pairing.
Unlike last season, when the Marleau-Thornton-Setoguchi line was ridiculed by some fans who felt the team was "putting all their top eggs in one basket," this year's group of forwards has so many top eggs that they can't all fit in one.
Having Marleau as the center-piece of the second line creates two top lines that are equally as dangerous.
Not only is playing on the second line allowing Marleau to flourish, but the burden of leading the team as a captain is no longer a concern, allowing him to focus more on his game and less on media issues.
With these changes, Marleau seems to be skating faster than he has in his entire career.
At 30, could Marleau really be faster than he was at 25? If you ask him, he may not say yes, but his performance on the ice says otherwise.
With his tenth goal of the season in Wednesday's shootout win over the Kings, Marleau is now on pace for 63 goals and has set the franchise record for the fastest player to the ten-goal mark.
Owen Nolan, the former record holder, is now slowly running out of franchise marks thanks to Marleau, who continues to amaze with his powerful skating stride and tremendous jump from stand-still to full speed.
Five of his 10 goals this season have come because Marleau was just flat-out faster than the opposition.
The speed at which he is playing is reminiscent of that 2003-04 season—the best in Sharks history.
Granted, Marleau did have a great regular season this past year, yet there still seemed to be something blocking his mind from focusing solely on hockey.
But this year, nothing seems to be able to stop Marleau, as he is finally just letting things happen. Not trying to do too much or be somebody he's not, he is simply using his best skill sets and attacking with them like never before.
Being able to play that way is a tremendous improvement over seasons past. In recent years, there were numerous occasions where fans thought to themselves "if only Marleau had just used his speed in that situation," or, "why is he cutting too the inside??? He could have burned him on the outside!"
However, this season I have yet to hear any fan make such a complaint, because Marleau is moving at a blistering pace out on the ice.
The longest tenured Shark is doing what he does best: attacking with speed.
If he can stay healthy, Marleau's speed may just allow him to do the one thing he has yet to experience in hockey—hoist Lord Stanley's Cup.
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