Thornton assisted on four goals, including Christian Ehrhoff's winner just 34 seconds into overtime, and San Jose earned a playoff spot with a 5-4 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday night.
Thornton, who also set up Scott Hannan's tying goal with 4:03 left in the third period, went end to end before peeling off in the corner and spotting Ehrhoff alone in the slot. The Sharks' defenseman snapped a quick shot over the glove of Alex Auld as San Jose won its sixth straight, finally ending a long, unlikely comeback from early season struggles.
"It was a special goal with playoff clinching," Ehrhoff said. "We had a rough start in the season and to come back is a very big accomplishment."
San Jose rallied twice from deficits to tie the game and force overtime. Much like their season, the comeback started with Thornton, who set up the first two and the final two goals, improving his NHL-best assists total to 91.
San Jose was 8-12-4 before acquiring him in a blockbuster trade with the Boston Bruins on Nov. 30. The Sharks are 34-14-7 since Thornton's arrival.
"We got in trouble early but we've done this all year long, we just come back and never give up," said Thornton, who has tallied 86 of his 119 points since arriving in San Jose. "If you told people three months ago this team was going to make the playoffs, they would have said 'no,' but we just have great character."
Thornton is also just two points behind Jaromir Jagr for the NHL scoring lead.
Mattias Ohlund and Markus Naslund scored power-play goals, Daniel Sedin had a goal and two assists and twin brother Henrik Sedin added a pair of assists for the Canucks, who have just one win in the last six games.
Despite the loss, Vancouver moved a point behind eighth-place Edmonton in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Both teams have two games left, including a rematch between the Canucks and Sharks in San Jose on Thursday.
To win that, the Canucks will first have to find a way to slow down Thornton, who extended his points streak to six games, with 13 in that stretch.
"We let him skate from one end to the other without touching him," Canucks defenseman Ed Jovanovski said. "A Bantam player could have skated up the ice and made a play. We respected him way too much, way too much. That's the bottom line."
After falling behind 2-0, Thornton set up a pair of goals with pretty passes, rallying the Sharks before the first period ended.
First he sprung Grant Stevenson with a pass from behind his own net to the far blue line and Stevenson converted the breakaway with a shot over Auld's glove with 2:39 left in the period. Thornton spotted Nils Ekman out of the corner on a power play 1:37 later and Ekman, alone in the slot, one-timed it past Auld.
"We've been like umpteen points behind (in the standings) and caught people so two goals down in the first 10 minutes is not that big a hill to climb for us," Sharks coach Ron Wilson said.
Milan Michalek gave the Sharks the lead 7:52 into the second, but Daniel Sedin tied it on another Canucks power play later in the period and Bryan Allen gave the Canucks another lead 6:14 into the third.
Then Thornton took over again. His pass from behind the net found Hannan alone in the slot and the Sharks defenseman buried a shot over Auld's right shoulder. It was more of the same - this time out of the corner - on Ehrhoff's winner.
"You just got to get open and he s going to get you the puck," Ehrhoff said.
Vesa Toskala made 20 saves for his sixth-straight win, but Wilson indicated Evgeni Nabokov would start for the first time in eight games Thursday. Auld finished with 22 saves and will play his 14th straight game - and 57th in 61 - in San Jose.
"We're urgent, they're desperate and urgent is a positive feeling and desperate is a negative feeling," Wilson said. "If we think we've achieved what we set out to, we haven't. We want to challenge for the Stanley Cup.
Notes: The Canucks won their first two games against the Sharks this season, but both came a week before San Jose added Thornton, who now has more assists than any Canucks player has points. ... After visiting San Jose on Thursday, the Canucks host Colorado on Saturday to finish their regular season. ... The Sharks have three games left, all at home, against the Canucks, Anaheim and Los Angeles. San Jose is within striking distance of the fifth-place Mighty Ducks and fourth-place Nashville. ... Canucks D Eric Weinrich was a healthy scratch after going pointless with a minus-12 rating since being acquired from St. Louis at the March 9 trade deadline. D Sean Brown, acquired from New Jersey the same day, took his place.
|PPG - Mattias Ohlund (13) ASST: Henrik Sedin (55), Daniel Sedin (48)|
1 - 0 VAN
|PPG - Markus Naslund (31) ASST: Daniel Sedin (49), Ed Jovanovski (23)|
2 - 0 VAN
|Grant Stevenson (10) ASST: Joe Thornton (88), Vesa Toskala (1)|
2 - 1 VAN
|PPG - Nisse Ekman (19) ASST: Joe Thornton (89), Scott Hannan (18)|
2 - 2 Tie
|Milan Michalek (17) ASST: Steve Bernier (13), Patrick Marleau (52)|
3 - 2 SJS
|PPG - Daniel Sedin (22) ASST: Henrik Sedin (56), Nolan Baumgartner (28)|
3 - 3 Tie
|Bryan Allen (7) ASST: Nolan Baumgartner (29)|
4 - 3 VAN
|Scott Hannan (6) ASST: Joe Thornton (90), Tom Preissing (29)|
4 - 4 Tie
|Christian Ehrhoff (5) ASST: Joe Thornton (91), Tom Preissing (30)|
5 - 4 SJS
|Josh Gorges Holding|
|Ville Nieminen Interference|
|Scott Hannan Delay of game|
|Ville Nieminen Hooking|
|Todd Bertuzzi Hooking|
|Tyler Bouck Hooking|
|Matthew Carle Delay of game|
|Ed Jovanovski Delaying the game|
|Markus Naslund Hi-sticking|
|Mattias Ohlund Hooking|
|Jonathan Cheechoo Interference on goalkeeper|