Patrick Marleau glided in on St. Louis goalie Hannu Toivonen, moving left to right. He faked to the far post, tucked a shot just inside the near post and was raising his stick in celebration even before the puck hit the net.

Marleau's penalty shot gave the Sharks a 4-0 lead Friday night, one they would ride to their 11th consecutive victory. It also gave him five goals in his past six games.

So, all better? That's an intriguing question, in part because it cannot be fully answered as we speak. Oh, we can verify that Marleau has picked up his game of late. The five goals in six games, for example. Prior to that Marleau had scored 10 goals in 61 games, an impressive pace if Perry Berezan is your idea of a high bar.

Then there's everybody's favorite interpretive integer, the plus/minus. Marleau was minus-22 over his first 56 games. He is plus-7 since the start of the team's win streak.

But Marleau's uptick isn't just a paint-by-numbers thing. There have been yawning stretches this season when he showed up, skated his 18 minutes and had virtually no impact -- no sizzling dashes through the neutral zone to set up a momentum-generating shift in the offensive end, no impressively contentious battles in the corner, no huge hit, nothing you'd be inclined to chew on during the drive home from the game.

He was a holograph -- there, but not there. And there was no hiding his lack of assertiveness.


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Fact is, he skated into this season under the microscope based on a) the 164 points he'd scored in the first two seasons after the lockout, and b) his conspicuous disappearance during last spring's playoff loss to Detroit.

We have seen over the past three weeks that Marleau still has jump in those 29-year-old legs, and that the Sharks are better off when he's on top of his game. But there are bigger questions afoot that cannot be answered until the regular season ends, and the mission shifts from playoff positioning to legend making and legacy building.

Question No. 1: Speaking of interpretive data: Does Marleau rise to the level of competition, or does he shrink from it? In 2004, he scored seven goals as the Sharks defeated St. Louis and Colorado in the first two rounds of the playoffs. He was held to one goal and was a minus-5 in the conference final loss to Calgary.

In 2006, he scalded Nashville for seven goals as the Sharks won in five games. He scored two goals as they were eliminated by Edmonton.

Last postseason seemed to bring the context into focus. Marleau scored three goals against Nashville. But he had no points and was a minus-5 against Detroit. Moreover, his defensive gaffe -- pointed out in no uncertain terms by San Jose coach Ron Wilson -- helped cost his team Game 4. Two games later, the Sharks were on vacation.

Question No. 2: Is Marleau overly sensitive to criticism? Even before last year's Detroit series, we knew he was the quietest team captain in NHL history. One of the team's most popular players since arriving in San Jose nearly 10 years ago, he had never known the kind of unsparing scrutiny he received in the wake of the Detroit series.

Since no one has even hinted that Marleau's drop-off was in any way related to a physical problem, people wondered if it was a result of what was said and written about him. And if so, if that says something about his ability to deal with the noise outside the rink.

The same principles apply to last month's trade deadline. Was Marleau's play adversely affected by the trade rumors to which his name was attached? Did his game pick up after the deadline because he knew he'd be staying put? Hey, hockey players are only human. But the really good ones find a way to block out the distractions.

Question No. 3: Do Marleau's shortcomings translate into the Sharks' shortcomings? There's no getting around it -- some of Wilson's frequently cited complaints about his players (lack of will, inability to rebound from adversity, tendency to sit back and wait for the game to come to them) mirror the criticisms you hear about Marleau.

So, is this a viable premise for an ongoing relationship? Now we're getting ahead of the story. Eleven months ago, no one had a problem with Marleau. And for the past three weeks, he's been as good as ever.

So enjoy the show over the final three weeks of the regular season, but hold your conclusions until the final puck has been dropped. Because nothing's truly all better until the postseason says it is.

Contact Gary Peterson at gpeterson@bayareanewsgroup.com.