The San Jose Sharks are entering the final stretch of the season in third place in the Pacific Division and firmly – and perhaps somewhat surprisingly –in the mix of the playoff race. Even more surprisingly, the biggest part of the Sharks success has been the re-emergence of Joe Thornton as the team’s best player.
The 36-year old Thornton has been a long-time star and is a sure-fire future Hall-of-Famer. The first overall pick in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft by the Boston Bruins, Thornton has carried numerous teams on his broad shoulders, won Ross and Hart trophies, played in six NHL All-Star games and featured heavily in two Olympic Games as a member of gold medal-winning Team Canada. Simply, Thornton has “been there, done that.”
But, there’s no denying Father Time, and Thornton is 36 and coming off a couple of years of steady decline in performance. Moreover, in the chaos surrounding the team after getting bounced from the first round of the playoffs two years ago (after first jumping to a 3-0 series lead), Thornton lost his captaincy and was, seemingly, becoming an after thought in San Jose.
Thornton has apparently doscovered the Fountain of Youth, and heading into Sunday’s game at Vancouver, he is tied with Joe Pavelski for the team-lead with 56 points through the first 60 games. He’s gotten better as the season as gone along too, as noted by Josh Cooper in Yahoo!, Thornton leads the NHL with 40 points since mid-December, and in February, he’s had five goals and 10 assists, including a four-point night earlier in the week against the St. Louis Blues.
Big 4-point night for this guy. pic.twitter.com/VtIbcki1pK
— San Jose Sharks (@SanJoseSharks) February 23, 2016
First-year coach Peter DeBoer deserves some credit for Thornton’s steady play, as he’s not only kept a careful eye on Thornton’s ice time on the first forward line and first power play unit – he averages 18:40 in ice time per game – but has also given the team more days off, surely a benefit for long-time veterans like Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Fresh legs mean more jump on game day, and the increased pressure the Sharks can deploy over three full periods gives the team – and Thornton – more opportunities to make a difference.
For his part, Thornton is making sure he gets his rest, telling Cooper earlier this week, ““For me the big thing is sleep. Being a West Coast team, sleep is very, very important. I really do try to get nine hours per night, if I can, of sleep.”
Of course, while Thornton credits sleep, his teammates and coaching staff will note his work effort, both off the ice and in practice. Nobody works harder to prepare for the rigor of the season than Thornton, and his leadership by example pays dividends with the young supporting cast general manager Doug Wilson has put alongside his battle-tested veterans.
The Sharks will need for Thornton to play his best if they’re to hold onto a playoff position in the Western conference. Sunday’s game against the rival Canucks is the first of five meetings over the balance of the season, and whichever team comes out on top of the head-to-head matchup will have an advantage.
Then, if the Sharks do qualify for the post-season, perhaps this spring can see a playoff run to vanquish the demons of playoffs past, where Thornton, despite his sometimes gaudy statistics, has failed to reach the Stanley Cup Finals.
Photo Credit: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
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