OVER THE next three weeks, the San Jose Sharks are either going to turn into one of those neat little stories of grit and determination or one of the biggest belly-flops in "The New and Improved NHL."

Unfortunately for the Sharkies, there is no middle ground. They have to make the playoffs. After all, they were supposed to be one of the beacons of the revamped league, and that was before they acquired superstar Joe Thornton.

The new rules were supposed to be a distinct advantage for San Jose's fast skaters and their puck-possession style. Way back in September, almost at the instant the long lockout was settled, general manager Doug Wilson

boasted about his club being "ready to hit the ground running."

In retrospect, maybe that was the miscalculation. Have you ever seen someone try to run on ice?

Whatever prompted that early stumble, the season is now on the line. With 11 regular-season games to go starting with tonight's homecoming against the Phoenix Coyotes, success or failure in 2005-06 is still the Sharks' call — amazingly, they somehow do control their own destiny — but it's also way too close to call.

San Jose isn't making it any easier on itself. After finally climbing into a tie for the eighth spot Saturday, the first time the Sharks have held a playoff position since Nov.5, they closed an otherwise impressive road trip with a dismal 4-1 loss to lowly Columbus on Tuesday night.

Hence, San Jose is still onthe outside looking in, two points out of the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference. On the plus side, fifth place is still attainable with a strong closing rush, but it won't be easy.

Even though the Sharks play more home games (six) than road games (five) the rest of the way, the schedule is not exactly favorable.

After the two home games against the Coyotes, the Sharks then play five of the next six on the road, and four will be against contenders — Dallas, Colorado, Los Angeles and Vancouver — and the one home game they play during that stretch is against second-seeded Dallas.

The upshot of that is by the time the Sharks play three in a row at home in mid-April to close the regular season (against Vancouver, Anaheim and Los Angeles), they already could be out of it, if they don't play well before then. Even if they do, they play the final six games in nine days. Ouch.

With that in mind, winning both games against Phoenix tonight and Saturday would seem almost imperative heading into that brutal home stretch. If not, it all could be over before it starts.

It's going to be a real shame if San Jose doesn't get in, that's for sure. For starters, since the acquisition of Thornton on Nov.30, the Sharks have played like a playoff-caliber team: 28-18, although six losses were in overtime or shootouts (for which they earned a point).

But it's been a seasonlong game of dump-and-chase ever since the Sharks lost 10 straight games in November, managing just three points during that horrific stretch. As well as the Sharks have played, the ultra-competitive West has proven tough conference in which to gain ground.

Picking up 62 points in 46 games has only moved them from 12th to ninth.

It's hard to fathom where San Jose might be without Thornton, who might turn out to be hockey's steal of the decade.

Since the trade for Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau, the big center is the league's leading scorer with 73 points. He has scored 106 points for the season, second-best in the NHL, and leads the league in assists with 81.

He has improved the Sharks' offensive output by nearly a full goal per game and turned young Jonathan Cheechoo into a star — 30 of Cheechoo's 38 goals since the trade have come on Thornton assists.

Little wonder Thornton is being pushed hard as a Hart Trophy MVP candidate. He's certainly deserving, but it's a lot less likely that he'll win it if the Sharks lug in down the stretch. Thornton would be happy just to get into the playoffs as opposed to winning another individual honor, something that has come much easier to him during his career than team success.

If the Sharks can just qualify for the postseason, the potential is there for a deep run with their Big Three — Thornton, Cheechoo and Patrick Marleau — each among the league's top 10 scorers.

What's more, they have to feel good about recent Western Conference playoff history — Calgary made it to the Stanley Cup Finals as the sixth seed two years ago, and three seasons ago, Anaheim made it all the way to the seventh game of the finals as the West's seventh seed.

Fail, however, and the Sharks will be lamenting their myriad disturbing shortcomings, most notably the horrible season of goaltender Evgeni Nabokov. He has become so unreliable coach Ron Wilson has turned to Vesa Toskala in recent weeks, and that may not change if and when San Jose gets into the postseason.

The quest right now is just to get in. Do the Sharks have a closing kick? Maybe, but they've been coming from behind for so long, fatigue may wind up being their most difficult opponent.

Carl Steward can be reached at (510) 293-2451

or by e-mail at csteward@angnewspapers.com.

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