SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -Although Joe Thornton rarely drops his gloves any more, he made an exception for rambunctious Dallas forward Steve Ott in the Sharks' regular-season finale.
Thornton briefly recaptured the days when the NHL's assists leader scored with his fists instead of his sublime passing. In a fight straight out of his Ontario boyhood, when the bigger kids on the ice had to stick up for their smaller teammates, Thornton pounded Ott with at least five left hands, drawing blood and an instigator penalty.
Don't expect Thornton to scrap much in the playoffs, but almost anything else seems possible after his outstanding regular season for the best team in Sharks history.
"(Not fighting) saves your hands, that's for sure," Thornton said Monday. "You've seen (enforcer) Jody Shelley's hands. That's a rough pair of mitts. I like my hands the way they are. My hands are how I make my money, so I take care of them."
As Thornton leads second-seeded San Jose into the Western Conference playoffs against the Calgary Flames, the Sharks' leading scorer seems to be on top of every aspect of his game. He finished the regular season with a surprising goal-scoring spree during San Jose's 20-game streak without a regulation defeat, and he ended up as the NHL's fifth-leading scorer with 29 goals and 67 assists while playing all 82 games.
"We've created a great atmosphere in here, with everybody pushing each other," Thornton said. "I really feel it's only going to get bigger and better in the playoffs."
Several factors have put Thornton in the best position yet to win his first Stanley Cup. He's a solid leader and a more mature teammate, the Sharks have said all season long, but he's also learning how to use every skill in his considerable arsenal - particularly his shot, which he often neglects while concentrating on passing.
"I've heard some people say he doesn't have a good shot," Sharks coach Ron Wilson said. "He has the best shot on the team. We see it in practice all the time. When he does shoot, he can fire it. You just challenge him to do it, and Joe always rises to those kinds of challenges."
That's where another factor in Thornton's growth comes into play. During those first summers on skates back home in Ontario, he frequently played with defenseman Brian Campbell, who's now his teammate in San Jose. Campbell probably knows more about Thornton than any of his teammates, and he doesn't hesitate to use that knowledge against him.
Wilson thinks Campbell deserves part of the credit for Thornton's outburst of eight goals in five games as San Jose finished up the best March record in NHL history (13-0-2) and clinched the No. 2 seed.
"I remember he used to shoot it like that all the time when he was younger," Campbell said with a grin, hinting at the jabs he's been throwing at Thornton in practice and during games. "He could really shoot it back then."
Wilson saw the results almost immediately after the Sharks acquired Campbell from Buffalo at the trade deadline - and not just on the San Jose power play, which has been the NHL's best since Campbell arrived to aid Thornton.
"It helps a little bit because Brian Campbell and him are buddies from a long time, and Brian eggs him on into doing some things, teases him," Wilson said. "That's good for him. (Campbell) has challenged him a little bit. ... I've told Joe a thousand times, being successful in the playoffs is the ability to make adjustments. I think he understands that. If he doesn't get any assists and just scores goals, and we win, that's what's important."
In the first round, Thornton will be going up against another source of motivation: Calgary coach Mike Keenan.
Though Thornton only played 74 games under Keenan in Boston during the 2000-01 season, he still cites the coach's well-known combination of hockey smarts and mental bullying as a key in his development from an untested No. 1 overall pick into a superstar.
"He knew how to get a little bit extra out of me, to get me to be the player he thought I should have been," Thornton said. "He definitely pushed the right buttons on myself. A huge impact on me. He opened my eyes to a lot of different things. I owe him a lot of my success. If you can handle the mind games, you'll be fine with him. He's a tough coach to have, and not all the guys can handle it, but I loved him as a coach."