For a brief moment there on Saturday, or just before the Boston Bruins frittered away a three-goal lead and lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Jumbo Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks had jumped to the front of the NHL playoff scoring line.
This was an unusual development primarily for two reasons:
One: Ever since his days with those self-same Bruins, Thornton has been busily trying to shed himself of a reputation as a player who cannot match his regular-season production in the playoffs.
Two: The Sharks constantly fight the same sort of underachieving label in playoffs past, in chase of a first-ever berth in the Stanley Cup final.
But the Sharks (and Thornton too) made a little history by bucking a little history on Friday night. Thornton picked up three assists to give him 17 points in 16 playoff games thus far; and his team squeezed out a 4-3 victory over the visiting Vancouver Canucks to get to within 2-1 in the best-of-seven series, pending the outcome of Sunday's fourth game, to be played at the HP Pavilion at high noon. The victory also ended an eight-game losing streak for San Jose in Western Conference finals, dating back to 2004.
Whatever changes the Sharks may make on the periphery of their line-up in anticipation of that game (and on Friday, they rotated out their entire fourth line), ultimately their fortunes will rise and fall with the play of Thornton, who had an exceptional playmaking night. More than anything, the Sharks were finally able to execute their long-standing game plan - dumping pucks in behind the Canucks' defence, forcing them to turn and retrieve them. It is an effective strategy, only if you can carry enough speed into the zone to put pressure on the defence - or better yet, win the race yourself.
The Tampa-Boston game was on in the Sharks' locker room yesterday after the Sharks went through an unusual full practice, and Thornton glanced up occasionally to see the Lightning pull off its remarkable comeback. Mostly though, according to Thornton, he is too busy at home, raising his family, to pay attention to what else is going on around the NHL. It is a lesson that Thornton says he's absorbed over the years, starting with his time in Boston, when he was a lightning rod for the Bruins' playoff failures.
"You just kinda learn to shut out the noise - and just concentrate on yourself," Thornton was explaining Saturday.
The only player who represents more of a lightning rod than Thornton is his linemate, Patrick Marleau, the former San Jose captain. Sharks' coach Todd McLellan likes putting the two together - and this year, with the emergence of Logan Couture as another bonafide centre, he has the luxury of playing Marleau exclusively on the wing.
"This is the time of year when you're either singled out for success or failure," said McLellan. "Often, when it's all said and done, only one of 30 teams wins. The other 29 teams are taking some form of criticism, or second-guessed for whatever reason - and it often starts with high-end players, highly compensated players, players that have high expectations of them.
"Sometimes, it's very fair and just. Other times, they just happen to be the lightning rods."
McLellan continued: "We feel they're bringing they're bringing their game, night in and night out. Patty obviously took some heat in the Detroit series. He found a way to make an impact.
"Jumbo, I think all of us are pretty knowledgeable hockey people and we can see how he's elevated his game; how important it is to him; the impact that he has on his teammates in the locker room and on the ice. It's a sign of leadership."
Couture, incidentally, was given a clean bill of health by doctors after his collision with Ryane Clowe in Friday's game obliged him to go to the NHL quiet room to be assessed for concussion symptoms. Couture said he felt fine and was set to play.