SAN JOSE, Calif. - When the San Jose Sharks won their first-round playoff series it was in spite of the lacklustre performance from Joe Thornton and the rest of his gold medal line.
"No Show Joe" turned back into "Jumbo Joe" in the second round, leading the Sharks past the two-time defending Western Conference champion Detroit Red Wings in five games.
"I kind of got off to a slow start against Colorado and never really found my game that series," Thornton said in the victorious locker room Saturday night. "For whatever reason, I always play Detroit really well. They have a competitive bunch up front. It forces me to be on top of my game. From the first game I felt great. I felt confident and rode it all series."
Thornton may have been at his best in the clincher. He scored San Jose's first goal, set up Patrick Marleau's game-winner in the third period and helped kill off a penalty in the final minute to preserve the 2-1 win that sent the Sharks to the conference finals for the second time in team history and first since 2004.
With a gold medal at the Olympics in February, and three goals and five assists in five games against the Red Wings, Thornton might finally be shedding the label of post-season underachiever that has hounded him since his days in Boston.
"He competes all the time," captain Rob Blake said. "He wants it. You can see it in him. He wanted it last year too. You could see it. He's a very determined individual right now and it's great for us to see."
Thornton brought a physical presence in the series opener and assisted on a goal by Dany Heatley in a 4-3 victory. He followed that by scoring his first playoff goal of the season with 7:23 left in regulation to give the Sharks another 4-3 win in Game 2.
Thornton didn't let up when the series shifted to Detroit, scoring in the third period to spark a San Jose rally from two goals down and then assisting on Marleau's game-winner in overtime.
After the whole Sharks team seemed to take a night off in a 7-1 loss in Game 4, Thornton came through in a clincher that was even more satisfying because of the competition.
"They've been the best hockey club in the league the past four or five years," Thornton said. "To knock off a team like that in the fashion we did is pretty impressive."
The Red Wings and Sharks have had the two best records in the regular season in the past five years but the difference in the post-season has been stark. While Detroit won the Stanley Cup in 2008, went back to the finals last year and made it to the conference finals in 2007, the Sharks hadn't made it past the second round in that span until this year.
Much of the blame for that fell on Thornton and Marleau. Winning the first round did little to quiet that criticism, as their gold medal line with Heatley scored only one goal in six games.
The second line of Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi and Ryane Clowe got all the praise after combining for nine goals.
The top trio had seven goals against the Red Wings. Coach Todd McLellan said he hoped that performance would quiet all the criticism of past post-season struggles. Thornton knows there's more work to be done to do that.
"We want to win the next series and we'll win the next series after that hopefully and then everybody will kind of be quiet," Thornton said. "For now it's nice."
The Sharks will get some rest before starting the conference final against either Chicago or Vancouver. The Blackhawks lead that series 3-2 after losing 4-1 at home in Game 5 on Sunday night.
Another player maligned for past playoff performances also came through in the clincher for the Sharks. Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov was outplayed by Anaheim's Jonas Hiller in last year's post-season and was pulled after allowing five goals in the first period in Game 4 against Detroit.
But he came up with 33 saves in the clincher, withstanding a barrage from the Red Wings late in the second period to keep the game tied.
"He played great," Thornton said. "We're going to go as far as Nabby takes us. He's been the backbone of this team all year long. He was huge in the second period and huge in the third. We knew he'd bounce back. He's playing great right now."