San Jose Sharks center Patrick Marleau (12) celebrates after scoring against the Calgary Flames in the second period in Game 5 of an NHL hockey Western Conference playoff series, Thursday, April 17, 2008, in San Jose, Calif. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Paul Sakuma
SAN JOSE, Calif. - Patrick Marleau's teammates saw the picture of their captain, blood dripping from above his right eye the day after their Game 3 collapse in Calgary.
For outsiders, that snapshot could have been evidence that Marleau and the San Jose Sharks again were getting bullied in the playoffs by a more physical team.
For the Sharks, it was a sign of the quiet toughness from their captain. The much-maligned Marleau has put a terrible first half of the season and last year's playoff struggles behind him to help the Sharks move within one win of the second round.
"He's played unbelievable," Sharks forward Ryane Clowe said. "He's really motivated. You can tell he's hungry. He's not a real rah-rah, vocal guy. If something has to be said he'll say it. It doesn't really make a difference because you get inspired by his play on the ice."
Nothing was more inspiring for the Sharks than Marleau's play at the low point of this series. San Jose jumped out to an early 3-0 lead in Game 3 in Calgary before the Flames rallied for a 4-3 win.
Many of the Flames credited the boost they got from two big hits against Marleau by Cory Sarich and Dion Phaneuf that have quickly become YouTube favourites. Marleau's face was bruised and his eye swollen and bloody, but he immediately asked to be put right back into the game.
He was probably San Jose's best player after those hits, even though he couldn't stop the Flames comeback. The next day, the picture of the bloodied Marleau was in the morning papers.
"Losing that game and sitting in Calgary and seeing his face in the paper for two days straight. It really bothered us. I think that was motivation," Jody Shelley said. "You watch playoff hockey the last 20 years, 50 years. You see the leaders are the guys that are banged up and who keep going.
"He's the captain of this team and is quiet but he has lot of pride in what he's doing. It really showed in that game. He could have been easily hiding under the bench but he wanted to be back on the ice. That's what you need and we're proud of him."
The Sharks and Marleau rebounded from that hit, winning the next two games to take a 3-2 lead over the Flames. Marleau scored the tiebreaking goal late in the second period and set up the eventual game-winner in San Jose's 4-3 victory in Game 5 on Thursday night.
"Everybody wants to play well in the regular season, don't get me wrong. But who cares," Clowe said. "If you show up in the playoffs that's what people remember because that's the time of year that's most important. If you can play in the playoffs, no one will doubt you."
Marleau is the Sharks' franchise leader in points (539), goals (238) and assists (301). Despite those numbers, some critics have questioned whether the mild-mannered No. 2 overall pick in the 1997 draft can be a leader.
The questions reached a peak during last year's playoffs when Marleau went scoreless with a minus-5 rating in the Sharks' six-game, second-round loss to the Detroit Red Wings.
"I'm not really thinking about last year right now," Marleau said. "It was a good learning experience, but it's in the past."
Marleau accepted much of the blame for that early post-season exit. His inspired play this spring has quieted his critics from the media to his own coach, who now only has praise for his captain.
"I think Patty Marleau, by a country mile, has been our best player, skating, competing, leading by example," Ron Wilson said. "He's toughened up mentally. We've put him through a lot in the last year. He's been questioned outside and inside and it's toughened him up. His skin's pretty thick now."
Marleau recorded just 29 points in the first 58 games of the season. He stepped up his play down the stretch and recorded 19 points in the final 20 games of the season as the Sharks made a late push to the second-best record in the NHL.
The resurgence coincided with the passing of the trade deadline. While Marleau said the possibility of being dealt didn't weigh on him, he's been a different player since all those rumours were put to rest.
"This is a game where you have to be clear-minded and fresh, because everything happens so fast, and if you're not prepared for it, you're going to look out of place," teammate Jeremy Roenick said. "I think he feels much better for it. It's nice. Everybody has been waiting for Patty to get going, and he told us he was going to get going, and he has."