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Patrick Sharp, a prolific shooter, has career-high 44 assists

Chicago Blackhawks' Patrick Sharp (10) left celebrates with Bryan Bickell (29) Nick Leddy (8) after scoring game-winning goal Montreal Canadiens

Chicago Blackhawks' Patrick Sharp (10), left, celebrates with Bryan Bickell (29) and Nick Leddy (8) after scoring the game-winning goal Montreal Canadiens during overtime period of an NHL hockey game in Chicago, Wednesday, April 9, 2014. The Blackhawks won 3-2 in overtime. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) ORG XMIT: CXA109

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FRIDAY

BLACKHAWKS

AT CAPITALS

The facts: 6 p.m., CSN, 87.7-FM.

By human standards, Patrick Sharp is quite young. By pro-athlete standards, he’s a veteran. By Blackhawks standards, he’s downright old.

But at 32 — among the Hawks’ 17 forwards, only he, Michal Handzus and Marian Hossa are older than 28 — Sharp is in the best shape of his life and might be playing the best hockey of his career. And with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane out of the lineup, he has stepped up and played a major role in turning a three-game losing streak into a four-game winning streak, carrying the Hawks into the playoffs with a surge of momentum.

Sharp has three goals and two assists in the last three games. His 34 goals are two off his career high set in 2007-08. His 44 assists beat his previous best by three. And his 78 points have shattered his previous best of 71 set in 2010-11 — so-called Stanley Cup hangovers seem to suit him well.

“I like the responsibility shown,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “His leadership as part of the core group, in absence of two of our top guys — I think Sharp has stepped up to the plate and responded.”

Sharp always has been a goal-scorer. This is his fourth 30-goal season since being traded from the Philadelphia Flyers to the Hawks during the 2005-06 season. His 311 shots on goal are second only to Alex Ovechkin (whom the Hawks will face Friday night in Washington) and are by far the most on the team (Hossa is second at 236). Heck, even his dog is named Shooter.

So it’s the passing numbers that really stand out. Yes, Sharp scored the game-winning goal in overtime Wednesday night against the Montreal Canadiens. But it was his deft centering feed to Hossa for the game-tying goal in the final minute that was the play of the night.

Certainly it helps that he has spent most of the season on the top line with Toews and Hossa, as well as on the point on the power play. But while he’ll always be a shooter, he’s thinking pass a lot more than he did earlier in his career.

“Yeah, I think that’s something that’s improved,” Sharp said. “Probably credit my linemates and the power play for a lot of those assists because guys are putting the puck in. And I guess I’m a little bit older, a little more patient with the puck and able to make those plays and not get so excited to shoot. I know I shoot the puck a lot, but that used to be my main focus — just get it on net any way. Now I feel like I try to make that extra play.”

Like Toews and Kane and so many other Hawks, Sharp has logged a lot of miles in the last 15 months. He has played all 80 games and played five more at the Olympics. Sharp said he feels good, though, and his production and two-way play suggest fatigue isn’t an issue.

That’s where all the off-ice work has paid off. During training camp, Sharp earned the title of “Fittest Hawk,” testing through the roof. Sharp didn’t try to hide the fact that he was proud of it — especially given the competition on the team, and especially at his advanced (by his teammates’ standards, at least) age.

“I think that helped out quite a bit, the training I did not only this summer, but all through my late 20s,” he said. “When you build that base and that foundation, you can always fall back on it. I feel good. Energy level’s high. Mentally, I’m motivated, I’m ready to play. I’m excited about the playoffs coming around. It’s a great time of year here in Chicago, and I just want to play as well as we can and have all those good feelings carry on into the playoffs.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus



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