From left, Dallas Stars\' Steve Ott and Loui Eriksson and San Jose Sharks\' Logan Couture eye the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, March 31, 2011, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
SAN JOSE, Calif. - Making the playoffs has become expected in San Jose, with the clinching usually generating little attention for a franchise that has topped 100 points the past four years.
The accomplishment feels a little more satisfying this season, considering how low in the standings the Sharks were just over two months ago.
Antti Niemi made 29 saves for his sixth shutout of the season and Patrick Marleau scored twice to help San Jose wrap up its seventh straight playoffs berth with a 6-0 victory over the Dallas Stars on Thursday night.
"We had to fight for it a little bit more from the bottom of the standings," Marleau said. "We took a different road this time compared to the last few seasons, but I think it will make us stronger."
When San Jose dropped its sixth straight game on Jan. 13, falling to Edmonton, the Sharks had the 12th-best record in the Western Conference and were in last place in the Pacific Division.
But the Sharks have won 24 of 32 games since then to vault to the top of the division and move one point ahead of Detroit for second place in the Western Conference with five games remaining.
"I like where our team is at right now with the pressure we've had to play with the last two months," coach Todd McLellan said. "We've never had the opportunity to put it on cruise control and I don't want us to push that button at all. I want us to keep going so when that tournament does start, we're at the top of our game and not trying to find it."
That's exactly where the Sharks were on this night as Logan Couture, Dan Boyle, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Ben Eager also scored on a night the Sharks had a season-high 52 shots and matched the most-lopsided home shutout in franchise history.
"It's been like this the last four or five weeks," captain Joe Thornton said. "Everyone has been contributing. It's a whole team right now."
The Stars lost their fifth straight game as their teetering playoff hopes took another blow. Dallas is three points behind Chicago for the final playoff spot in the West with six games remaining.
"They were more ready than we were," defenceman Stephane Robidas said. "They crashed the net and put the puck in. I don't now how to explain it except tonight they were the better team. It's as simple as that. They made plays and jumped at us early."
Niemi has started every game since that six-game losing streak and has been a major reason for the turnaround. He came up big again in this game, especially with two key saves in the second period when the Sharks took control of the contest.
Niemi first stopped a short-handed chance from Jamie Benn early in the period to preserve a 1-0 lead and then helped kill Dallas' third power play of the period with a sprawling stop against Loui Eriksson.
The Sharks followed each of those saves with goals to take a 3-0 lead into the third. With Trevor Daley in the penalty box, Couture did a nice job knocking a puck in the air down with his glove and knocking it in on the backhand to make it 2-0.
"I credit that to my baseball years," he said. "Growing up I was a shortstop back home but had to quit at 14. I always had a great glove and I was just able to throw it to my stick and put it in."
Then late in the period, Vlasic sent a point shot through a screen by Devin Setoguchi and past Kari Lehtonen for his third goal of the season to make it 3-0.
Marleau ended Lehtonen's night early in the third when he took a pass from Jamal Mayers, skated past Jeff Woywitka and scored on a wrist shot.
Marleau added his 35th goal and Eager also scored later in the third against Andrew Raycroft as the Sharks handed Dallas its most lopsided shutout loss in more than seven years.
"We've plated terrific defence for the last month and that was a bad game for us, especially the last two periods," Stars coach Marc Crawford said.
There was some bad blood between the two teams from their game in Dallas on March 15 when San Jose's Dany Heatley got a two-game suspension for elbowing Steve Ott and Sharks defenceman Niclas Wallin and Eriksson both were injured on hard hits. Ott hit Heatley early in this game and the jawing continued as both players went to the boards.
The Sharks got on board first, set up by a spin-o-rama by Joe Pavelski. He made the move in a one-on-one situation against Woywitka and his backhand was blocked by Lehtonen's pad. But Lehtonen could not cover up the rebound and Boyle beat the Dallas defence to the loose puck and knocked it in for the only goal of the first period.
NOTES: Thornton's two assists gave him 997 career points. ... Marleau had his 50th career multigoal game and also set a franchise record with 12 shots on goal. ... Niemi has 13 career shutouts. ... The Stars have been shutout five times this season.