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San Jose's Thornton finally having fun

Forward enjoying Sharks' resurgence as they take 2-1 lead into Game 4 against St. Louis

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

SAN JOSE -- At first he hesitated.

Joe Thornton, one of hockey's best passers and defensive forwards at 36, had been asked if he was surprised at all by the way he has continued to play at this stage of his career.

He wasn't sitting in a private room chatting with teammates, where he normally would be comfortable and candid. He was sitting on a platform after the San Jose Sharks' 3-0 win against the St. Louis Blues in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final on Thursday night, under bright lights, in front of microphones, before rows of reporters with cameras and voice recorders.

"No. Um …"

Pause.

"No. I …"

Pause.

"I know I'm a great player."

Video: SJS@STL, Gm2: Thornton horses around with young fans

Thornton smiled as the room erupted in laughter. You rarely hear athletes come out and say something like that no matter how qualified they are, especially hockey players, especially Thornton.

But the rest of the quote is just as significant.

"And I love to play, and I feel good playing with who I'm playing with and our team," Thornton continued. "It just …"

Pause.

"Yeah, I feel good. I just feel really good about my game, and I feel good about my linemates' game and our power play and just our whole team game. I'm just really, really comfortable with it. It's been fun."

This was a rare window into the real Joe Thornton, the one coaches and teammates always talk about, the confident, competitive, fun-loving one he often keeps hidden in public because of bad experiences in the past.

That he let us peek into it now says a lot.

The Sharks lead the best-of-7 series 2-1 entering Game 4 at SAP Center on Saturday (7:15 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports), which means they are two wins from their first Stanley Cup Final, which means Thornton is closer than ever to playing for the Cup, which means things have changed.

Thornton hasn't changed as much as the Sharks have changed around him, lightening the atmosphere, leading to success, allowing him to be himself. He seems relaxed and happy.

"He's still the same guy," Sharks forward Logan Couture said. "He wants to win just as badly as he did six, seven years ago. … I think the biggest thing with him is, he's having a lot of fun. He loves this team. He loves the guys on the team. He loves coming to the rink and playing. He's just having a blast."

Video: SJS@STL, Gm1: Backes and Thornton exchange beard tugs

Rewind two years. The Sharks blew a 3-0 series lead in the Western Conference First Round and lost to the Los Angeles Kings in seven games, the biggest playoff disappointment in a series of them.

General manager Doug Wilson began to use the word "rebuild" and wondered whether certain veterans would want to stick around for it. Coach Todd McLellan stripped the "C" from Thornton's sweater and left the captaincy open entering training camp last season.

Thornton, who had a no-movement clause in his contract, never asked the Sharks to trade him.

"I still believe in this team, ultimately," he said early in camp that season. "If I didn't, I think …"

Pause.

"You know, that's the easy way out, just pack your bag and leave. I still believe this team can do some things."

The Sharks missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons and parted with McLellan. It was rock bottom. It was also a reset. They hired coach Peter DeBoer, who had worked with Thornton on an under-18 team once upon a time and shared Ontario Hockey League roots.

Their first meeting was frank but positive.

"This guy is as transparent a person as you'll ever find," DeBoer said. "He sits down and he tells you exactly what's on his mind, and there's no sugarcoating it. He just wants to win. He felt that if we could come in and do some of the things we wanted to do and help put him in a spot and this group in a spot where they had a chance to win that he was all in. He made that clear right from Day 1."

The Sharks beefed up their supporting cast, adding players such as forward Joel Ward and defenseman Paul Martin. When Martin arrived in San Jose, he was pleasantly surprised by Thornton, Patrick Marleau and the rest of the much-maligned core.

Video: Postgame 5/19: Hertl, Jones, Thornton

"To see how hard Jumbo and Patty work and to lead by example and talk when you need to is something that I didn't expect coming in here as far as everything I'd heard, but it's only what I'd read," Martin said. "Coming in here, I've been impressed with the way the guys have come to work and expect to win and prepare and want to win and do everything they can to make that possible."

The first half of the regular season wasn't smooth, as the Sharks adjusted to DeBoer and battled injuries. But they found their game in the second half, made the playoffs and avenged their loss to the Kings in the first round, defeating them in five games. They defeated the Nashville Predators in the second round in seven. Now they are dominating the Blues.

Thornton has three goals and 10 assists in 15 playoff games. Funny. He had three goals and nine assists in 15 playoff games when the Sharks went to the conference final in 2010, then three goals and 14 assists in 18 games when they went to the conference final in 2011. Only now Pavelski is the captain, the roster is deeper than ever before and everybody is clicking at the right time.

No wonder Thornton squirted a water bottle into the stands playfully and danced on the bench as a group of young Blues fans danced on the other side of the glass during a stoppage in play in Game 2 in St. Louis. He's a great player. He loves the game. He loves his team. He's doing what he wants to do: winning.

Wouldn't you be having a blast too?

"I think he's always been that guy away from the rink, from what I've heard," DeBoer said. "I'm sure the pressure of some situations over the years weighs on you a little bit. The thing is, he has a lot of support around him this year. He's got a lot of help. When you don't feel like it's all on you, I think you can …"

Pause.

"Your personality can maybe come out a little bit more. But I think that's his personality, what you're seeing now. That's the guy I knew when he was 17."

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