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Sharks Gameday: Clash of the Champions

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San Jose (36-7-7) at Boston (39-8-7)
4 PM PST, Broadcast on Versus

(See if you can find the number of wrestling references in this post.)

There are certain moments in life that are so monumental, you remember exactly what you were doing when something major happened. I remember where I was when I heard Barack Obama had been declared the winner of Ohio, effectively winning the election (sitting in my living room). I remember where I was when I heard Kurt Cobain was dead (getting ready to see pre-reality show INXS). I remember when Scott Steiner turned on his brother to join the NWO (I was there LIVE at the Cow Palace).

And of course, I remember where I was and what I was doing when the Sharks traded for Joe Thornton. It had been an ugly stretch of games, and while the Sharks had picked up some points in overtime/shootout losses, they were still in the midst of a LOSING streak. You knew something had to happen. Rumors of Boston's imminent firesale were kicking around hockey, but I didn't expect them to actually move Thornton, not since he just signed that big extension.

For that game, I settled in for the 5:30 PM start (it was in Dallas) and the TV crew flashed the lines and everything looked normal. Except Patrick Marleau wasn't actually skating with Marco Sturm. Brad Stuart wasn't actually out on the ice. Randy and Drew soon noted that the duo, along with Wayne Primeau, were missing from the bench.

My now-wife was about to leave for work, and I told her that something had to be up. You just don't play with that many key guys out of the lineup. Sturm was her favorite player on the team, and she told me to call her if anything happened. I said, half-jokingly, it didn't look good.

When she left, a tiny and totally unsubstantiated thought entered my head. What if the Sharks traded for Joe Thornton? Nah. If anything, it might have been Sergei Samsonov, but I doubted Doug Wilson would pull off anything that major. Remember, this is before Wilson became a wheelin' dealin' son of a gun. Instead, in his early years, he stood passively by while other GMs made moves, like Virgil silently getting berated by Ted Dibiase. I know it sounds like retroactive justification but it's true, it's true, I had that thought.

I was a little behind on Tivo as I stepped out to get a bite to eat, and I was fast-forwarding through the intermission when I noticed Randy and Drew looking oddly sullen on the screen. A few words flashed on the screen before I stopped and hit rewind, but I could swear the word Thornton was on the screen. And then hitting playback, Randy's now infamous words: "The Sharks now have two Thorntons. Joe Thornton..."

Drew's voice was shaky and I could tell that, while they understood the deal from a hockey perspective, they obviously liked all of the trio of departing players, and maybe they let their feelings show a little more than they should. Still, this was akin to the WWE rebooting the Invasion angle by trading in Lance Storm and Booker T for Goldberg at the peak of his popularity. It was that big.

My phone buzzed to notify that I had a message. One of my most knowledgeable hockey buddies left this memorable voice mail:

"DUDE! Where are you? We just got Joe Thornton! For Stuey, Sturm, and Primeau. I don't know who's going to play defense but I don't care!"

I called my now-wife at work and told her that I had good and bad news. The bad news, of course, was that her boy Marco Sturm was gone. The good news was, of course, that the Sharks had Joe Thornton.

"How good is he? Is he as good as Patty?" (She was more of Sharks fan than a hockey fan, though on our first date, she had told me how much she hated Peter Forsberg.)

"He's better than Patty. Much, much better. I took him first overall in our fantasy league."

"I don't know...I'll have to see him to believe it." (She was convinced about two days later.)

Of course, that all leads us to tonight, which -- assuming no crazy game misconducts get thrown around -- will be Joe's first proper game back in Beantown. This time, though, the B's and the Sharks are neck-and-neck for first in the league. I won't speculate about how good either team would have been had the deal not happened; that sort of fantasy prognosticating is best left to drunken bar conversations.

Instead, I just want to take a moment and look back at the other folks in the deal: Sturm, Stuart, and Primeau. All three were quality Sharks, all three were missed in their own way.

Marco Sturm: A fan favorite since coming in his rookie year alongside Patrick Marleau, Sturm seemed to be the consistent-but-not-that-good yin to Marleau's talented-but-inconsistent yang. You knew you could count on Sturm for 20+ goals, strong two-way play,  and a 100% effort. His freakish leg injury at the tail end of the 2003-04 season is still a major factor when playing What Might Have Been with that season's playoff run, and I think any Sharks fan would welcome Sturm back in an instant. It's too bad that Sturm's been out with an injury for the bulk of the season.

Brad Stuart: For a guy that flashed so much potential, Brad Stuart's career just never achieved the greatness so many people expected him to reach. Injuries kept him battling for an Intercontinental  (or U.S.) belt when everyone had him pegged as a World Champion for years to come. It's ironic, then, that the moment where his career seemingly took a step back involves current Shark enforcer Jody Shelley suckerpunching Stuart in the back of the head, much like when Kevin Nash accidentally dropped The Giant on his head. Stuart's probably not complaining considering his Stanley Cup ring, but as the key piece of the Thornton deal, Bruins fans have to be disappointed.

Wayne Primeau: When then-GM Dean Lombardi acquired Primeau for Matt Bradley, a lot of people scratched their heads. One speedy grinder for another? Primeau surprised everyone with his speed and strong penalty-kill sensibilities (though his hands left something to be desired; he botched more shorthanded breakaways than the NWO had members). In the 03-04 season, Ron Wilson had his synchronicity moment as he put Primeau, Marleau, and Sturm together for a pure-speed combination that somehow brought the best out of all three players. Had Sturm not been injured, the line would have probably gotten even better as the season progressed. Primeau was one of the glue guys in the locker room during that period of the Sharks, and even though his stay was brief, he was liked by the fans.

Of course, that's all ancient history now. Is this game just another two points? Probably not for Joe Thornton, despite what he says. And for each team, it's the proverbial measuring stick game. For the Sharks, too, big games against marquee opponents are good ways to break out of mini-slumps. I expect every player on both sides of the ice to be amped up for the game, and it should be a hell of a match up.

Prediction: Sharks 4, Bruins 3. Goals by Boyle, Thornton, Michalek, and Marleau.