The Blackhawks now have faced every team in the Western Conference and coach Denis Savard thinks he knows which one is the best.
"This is the best team we've played by far this year," Savard said after the San Jose Sharks methodically dismantled the Hawks 4-2. "We had a tough time matching their intensity and every other area of their game."
But while the Anaheim Ducks and Nashville Predators have been the top two teams in the Western Conference for most of the season, the Sharks may have the biggest difference-maker in center Joe Thornton.
Thornton was credited with just one assist in Saturday afternoon's gamehis 52nd of the seasonbut he also drew two penalties and won 20 of 30 faceoffs while dictating the pace and tempo of the game every shift he was on the ice.
"That pass [Thornton] made from behind the net on the third goal, I thought I did everything I could," Hawks defenseman Brent Seabrook said. "He's a big body (about 235 pounds) and, with the skills he has, I think he's the best in the league."
In what is becoming a more lopsided trade by the day, the Boston Bruins sent Thornton west last season for Marco Sturm, Wayne Primeau and Brad Stuart. Entering Saturday night, the three had just two more points combined than Thornton has assists this season, and the Bruins are rumored to be shopping Stuart.
In yet another example how dangerous it is to trade your best player, the Bruins will miss the playoffs for another season while Thornton figures to lead the Sharks deep into the spring. Last season San Jose lost to Edmonton in the second round.
"[Before] you were able to clutch and grab and that took his speed away a little," said Hawks center Bryan Smolinski, who faced Thornton when both played in the East. "[Now] he can do whatever he wants."
What makes the Sharks such a dangerous team come playoff time is their ability to play any style.
Three of their four goalsthe first from Marcel Goc, second from former Hawk Curtis Brown and fourth from Milan Michalekwere a result of the Sharks' speed in either forcing a Hawk turnover, beating them to a loose puck or splitting the defense for a semi-breakaway.
Patrick Marleau's goal, the eventual game-winner at 14 minutes 51 seconds of the second, came with good work low when Thornton just shielded Seabrook behind the Hawks' net and gave a perfect feed to Ryane Clowe. Nikolai Khabibulin stopped Clowe's shot but Marleau beat Denis Arkhipov to the rebound.
The Hawks' goals were from Tuomo Ruutu in the first and Martin Havlat in the second. For Ruutu, it was just his second goal in his last 19 games.
With captain Adrian Aucoin back in the lineup, Jassen Cullimore was the defenseman scratched along with Michael Holmqvist. It was the fourth time in the last five games Holmqvist has been scratched. Aucoin played 23:09 and Savard said Aucoin and Lasse Kukkonen were the Hawks' best defensemen. The Hawks traded Brandon Bochenski to Boston for minor-leaguer Kris Versteeg and a conditional draft pick. Bochenski had 33 goals and 66 points in 35 games at Norfolk, but couldn't find that scoring touch at the NHL level. Acquired last March from Ottawa for Tyler Arnason, Bochenski had two goals in 10 games with the Hawks this season. Versteeg, 20, had 22 goals and 49 points in 43 games for Providence in the AHL. Jonathon Toews, the Hawks' first-round draft pick last summer, was cited by police last week, along with two teammates, for being in a Grand Forks, N.D., bar. Toews is 18 years old. San Jose goaltender Vesa Toskala had assists on the first two San Jose goals, the first time in franchise history a Sharks goaltender had two assists in a game. Former Hawk Mark Bell, facing a Feb. 21 court date for a felony DUI arrest, has just seven goals and 10 points in 45 games with the Sharks.