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Sharks' seventh in row ends Canucks' playoff dreams

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -- In two magical back-to-back nights, Joe
Thornton took a share of the NHL scoring lead, just about
singlehandedly set the West's eight-team playoff field and ended
the Vancouver Canucks' postseason hopes.

Afterward, he was ready to contemplate even bigger things -- not
for himself, but for his San Jose Sharks, who are headed to the
postseason with all the momentum Thornton can gather.

Rookie Matt Carle scored the go-ahead goal on a pass from
Thornton with 8:36 left, and the Sharks eliminated Vancouver from
playoff contention with their franchise-record seventh straight
victory, 5-3 over the Canucks on Thursday night.

Thornton had three assists to tie Jaromir Jagr with 122 points
in his tremendous season since joining the Sharks in a trade with
Boston. Thornton had seven assists in about 27 hours during San
Jose's back-to-back wins over the Canucks, pushing the Sharks into
fifth place in the Western Conference standings with 97 points, one
ahead of Anaheim.

The Sharks still aren't satisfied -- not with the carefree
Thornton playing arguably the best hockey of his career.

"You never know," Thornton said. "Top seeds might get knocked
out, and we could get home ice in the second or third round. ... I
love it out here. I feel really strong, and we're winning a lot of
games."

Jonathan Cheechoo scored an early goal and an empty-netter with
16.2 seconds left for San Jose, which clinched a playoff berth with
a 5-4 overtime win at Vancouver on Wednesday night. Cheechoo has 53
goals, one behind Jagr and one ahead of Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk
for the NHL lead.

Both the Sharks and the Rangers have two games left in the
regular season.

Todd Bertuzzi had a goal and two assists for the Canucks, who
will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2000. It's a hugely
disappointing finish for Vancouver, touted as a Stanley Cup
contender early in the season.

"We had leads the last two nights, but I don't know why we
can't put any teams away," captain Markus Naslund said. "We were
in a must-win situation, and we couldn't get it done. It's a very
disappointing end to a very disappointing season for us. We gave a
good effort, but I don't know if we gave it our all."

Ed Jovanovski and Brendan Morrison also scored for the Canucks,
who went into the third period with a 3-2 lead -- but their
consecutive losses to San Jose allowed seventh-place Colorado and
eighth-place Edmonton to clinch playoff berths.

"They were tight, and squeezing the sticks as they were, we
were able to take advantage of it," Sharks coach Ron Wilson said.
"When you get on a roll like this, you go storming into the
playoffs. ... That team we played tonight is totally drained
because they're surrounded by a negative atmosphere, and it's
sliding all the way down the (roster)."

Nils Ekman and Ville Nieminen also scored as the Sharks won for
the 15th time in 20 games -- including four victories in the last
five nights -- while surging into the postseason.

"It's been a playoff atmosphere for us for a while, so I think
we'll be ready," Cheechoo said. "We wanted to get into the
show."

With a win over the Mighty Ducks on Saturday, San Jose could
clinch the No. 5 seed in the West and a first-round meeting with
the Nashville Predators.

Alex Auld made 23 saves for Vancouver, which has 90 points with
one game left -- not enough time to catch the Oilers, who have 93.

Bertuzzi put the Canucks ahead late in the second period with a
power-play goal, but Nieminen tied it for San Jose early in the
third.

"When we got that third goal, I thought it might just be our
night," Vancouver coach Marc Crawford said. "But when they got
their third goal, it seemed to give them a lot of life. It got the
building (excited)."

Thornton's inimitable passing -- and seldom-used goalie Evgeni
Nabokov's smart play -- made the difference during a San Jose power
play moments later. Nabokov fired the puck from his net to Thornton
at the Canucks' blue line during a Vancouver change, and Thornton
dangled on the wing before finding Carle for a sharp scoring shot
past Alex Auld.

Carle, who won the Hobey Baker award as the NCAA's top player
last week, also had an assist to give him six points in his first
10 NHL games.

Game notes
Ekman's goal was upheld after a lengthy video review to
determine whether he kicked the puck into the net. ... Bertuzzi had
just one goal and two assists in his previous seven games. ...
Nabokov, the Sharks' deposed No. 1 goalie making his first
appearance in eight games, stopped 17 shots. He has played just six
times since the Olympic break.