SAN JOSE — If there was a bright spot to the Sharks’ Game 3 loss, it was captain Joe Thornton’s breakout performance with three assists.
Although the top line has yet to light the lamp, the Sharks hope Thornton’s emergence will reverse the momentum of their Stanley Cup playoffs series with the St. Louis Blues, which San Jose trails 2-1.
“When your leader feels good, usually the team follows,” Coach Todd McLellan said. “So, we’ll see if there’s a positive trickle-down effect going into Game 4.”
The Sharks became a perennial Stanley Cup favorite soon after Thornton joined the club in a trade with the Boston Bruins midway through the 2005-06 season. Thornton took home the Hart and Art Ross trophies that year, but he was criticized for soft play after the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers ousted the Sharks from the playoffs.
In 2006-07, Thornton became the third player in NHL history, alongside Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, to record back-to-back 90 assist seasons; but the Sharks were eliminated in the second round by the Detroit Red Wings.
Comparisons to Dan Marino, Charles Barkley and Barry Bonds perpetuated after the Sharks took home four straight Pacific Division titles between 2008 and 2011 but failed to reach the Cup final.
But Thornton’s game has evolved with age. His offensive production has dropped (77 points this year, down from 114 in 2006-07), but he plays a more scrappy, two-way style of game reminiscent of Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman in his later years (Thornton is in 14th season, which was when Yzerman won his first of three Cups).
“He just wants to win,” McLellan said. “His play has reflected that — his commitment to back checking and playing on the defensive side.”
While the team sleepwalked through parts of the regular season this year, they were clutch when it counted, winning four straight division games at the end of the schedule to earn a playoff spot. A pivotal moment came when Thornton dropped his gloves against Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty in the second to last game, propelling a Sharks come-from-behind victory.
Thornton was resilient again Monday when the Sharks trailed 4-1 late in the third period. He set up two goals in the last five minutes and the Sharks would like to carry that momentum into Game 4.
“We’ve dealt with adversity a lot this year,” Logan Couture said. “We respond well to it, so I think that helps us out right now.”
Game 1: Sharks 3, Blues 2 (2 OT)
Game 2: Blues 3, Sharks 0
Game 3: Blues 4, Sharks 3 (Blues lead series 2-1)
Game 4: Thursday at Sharks, 7:30 p.m.
Game 5: Saturday at St. Louis, 4:30 p.m.
Game 6: April 23 at Sharks, TBD*
Game 7: April 26 at St. Louis, TBD*
(All games televised on Comcast SportsNet California, radio broadcast on 98.5 FM, 102.1 FM)