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Sharks get Couture, other healthy bodies back for post-Olympic stretch run

SAN JOSE, Calif. - The San Jose Sharks are close to being a complete team again even without a couple of stars still over at the Olympics.

The Sharks returned to practice Wednesday for the first time since the Olympic break with a couple of key players back in the fold.

Star forward Logan Couture was back on the ice along with previously injured forwards Raffi Torres, Tyler Kennedy and Matt Nieto as San Jose hopes to field a mostly healthy team for the final 23 games of the regular season.

Despite a litany of injuries, the Sharks are still fifth in the league in points with 80 and are seven points behind first-place Anaheim in the Pacific Division with one game in hand.

"We could be putting a group of players on the ice together for the first time this season," coach Todd McLellan said. "That can be a real good thing. It will also have to be a patient thing for our group. They are going to experience that level that they haven't been at yet. But we do have about six weeks to put it all together before we get to the real time of the year."

San Jose was without a few key cogs with forwards Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski, defenceman Marc-Edouard Vlasic and starting goalie Antti Niemi still in Sochi for the Olympics. Those players won't rejoin the team until next Wednesday in Philadelphia when the team holds its final practice before beginning the stretch run the following night against the Flyers.

The one key player the Sharks will be missing then as they try to catch Anaheim is rookie forward Tomas Hertl, who may not be back this season from a knee injury.

But the return of Couture and Torres especially should give the Sharks three dangerous lines that will be necessary if they are to make a long playoff run.

"I think with the exception of Hertl I think we're going to have the healthiest lineup we've had since the start of the year," said defenceman Dan Boyle, who used the time off to help heal his injured thumb. "That's good for us. This is going to be the team that's going to be taking us to the next level down the stretch."

Couture, fourth on the team with 35 points, missed the final 16 games before the break with a hand injury. While San Jose managed to win 10 games without one of its top forwards, the offence was severely impacted. The Sharks scored just 1.94 goals per game in Couture's absence, compared to 3.14 in the first 43 games, as the team lacked scoring depth.

Pavelski scored 11 of the 31 goals in Couture's absence but now may be able to move back to being a third-line centre, which creates major mismatches for opposing teams.

"It was nice to see guys step up," Couture said. "When Pav was going real well there, it was unbelievable to watch, night in and night out. Even as a fan I felt just to see him play that well was pretty cool. A lot of guys stepped up and helped the team win games when we weren't necessarily playing our best. We found ways and it's good to see."

Torres, who provided a major spark when he was acquired at last season's trade deadline, has been out all season with a torn ACL in his right knee.

Kennedy missed the final five games before the break with a lower-body injury, while Nieto sat the last two with an injured foot.

The Sharks got fourth-line forward Adam Burish back from a season-long back injury for the final two games before the break as the team is starting to get a look at what kind of roster it has before the trade deadline March 5.

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