SAN JOSE, Calif. - Joe Thornton's knuckles have healed just fine from the damage recently done to them by Steve Ott's face.
Any bad feelings from the San Jose Sharks' fisticuff-filled season finale with the Dallas Stars also have scarred over, players from both teams swear in that dismissive tone of voice that often implies an ulterior meaning.
When the Pacific Division's less-than-friendly rivals get back together at the Shark Tank on Friday night for the opener of their second-round playoff series, fans will find out whether both clubs' biggest brawl of the season adds any punch to the games that really count.
"It was a fun game to be a part of," Thornton said with a grin. "You see each other eight times (in the regular season), and a lot of stuff goes into that. I'm sure that won't be a part of this round."
Just 19 days before the series opener, the clubs turned a meaningless meeting into a prolonged brawl with 160 penalty minutes, including 95 in a wild first period. Thornton pounded on Ott in the featured bout, while tough guys Jody Shelley, Trevor Daley, Kyle McLaren and Stephane Robidas all got into the action. Even mild-mannered San Jose forward Milan Michalek started a fight for the first time in his career.
Afterward, Shelley said the game might be an issue if the teams met again. With that meeting looming, both sides now claim they were just blowing off some steam before the playoff grind.
"That Game 82, I don't think that was characteristic of anything that's going to happen in a playoff game," said Ott, who blames the Sharks for the shenanigans. "Maybe it was a nothing game, and they treated it like that."
"Game 82 wasn't really a hockey game any more," Sharks defenceman Brian Campbell said. "It was more a game of who could get the last shot after the whistle."
After splitting their eight regular season meetings with three road victories apiece, the clubs are riding waves of confidence from their first-round victories. Second-seeded San Jose held off the Calgary Flames in a taxing seven-game series, while the fifth-seeded Stars got out of their one-round-and-done playoff rut by eliminating the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks.
San Jose and Dallas haven't met in the post-season since 2000, when the Stars knocked the Sharks out of the second round on the way to their second straight appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. Yet they know plenty about each other.
"We play enough games against everybody in the conference," Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov said. "I don't think anybody is going to open up any secrets. It's just about grinding and paying attention to detail."
Dallas presents a big style change from the hectic pace of the Sharks' seven games against Calgary. The Stars favour a patient, trapping game reliant on good playmaking and solid defensive positioning, while the Sharks have a well-rounded approach that can move quickly or deliberately.
"We know each other so well," Dallas coach Dave Tippett said. "I'd like to see us play everybody during the regular season, but maybe the league's getting back at me a little bit right now. Here's Anaheim, that you've seen eight times, and now here's San Jose."
When the Sharks pondered the matchup after Thursday's practice, Sergei Zubov was the Dallas player usually mentioned first. The two-time Stanley Cup-winning defenceman hasn't played since Jan. 17 while healing a sports hernia, but he could be back in the Stars' lineup for Game 1 after practising with the club this week.
And although Dallas' scoring depth has improved with the addition of Brad Richards, the Sharks still are wary of Mike Modano, who scored four goals - including the tally that made him the leading U.S.-born scorer in NHL history - during the Stars' four trips to San Jose this season. After Dallas won in its sixth straight trip to the Shark Tank on Jan. 17, Modano jokingly dubbed his team "the San Jose Stars."
A few weeks later, the Sharks began their streak of 20 consecutive games without a regulation loss, rocketing them past Dallas into the division lead. The Stars fell into a tailspin at about the same time, dropping all the way to third place in the Pacific.
But several Stars thought the season-ending donnybrook against the Sharks brought them together for the post-season. Several Sharks felt the same way - but they insist the bad behaviour was checked at the playoff door.
"The wrong response would be letting them get to you and taking undisciplined penalties," said Ryane Clowe, the Sharks' leading scorer in the first round. "I think a rivalry is built through the playoffs. I'm sure this could lead to a great rivalry down the road."
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