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FIRST ROUND

Thornton healthy for Sharks, ready to face Golden Knights in playoffs

Veteran center missed 2018 postseason with knee injury

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

SAN JOSE -- Joe Thornton made his presence felt in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last year without playing. There he was at the hotel, on the bus, in the locker room, not only rehabbing an injured knee but helping the San Jose Sharks prepare.

And there he was in uniform, warming up for each game against the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference First Round and the Vegas Golden Knights in the second, making the other team think.

"It was great to see him out there," defenseman Justin Braun said. "I was talking to some of the Vegas guys, [and they were] saying that they thought he was playing every game."

Braun laughed.

"This year, he will be," Braun said.

 

[RELATED: Complete Sharks vs. Golden Knights series coverage]

 

The 39-year-old center will enter the playoffs relatively healthy for the first time in three years and strengthen San Jose's depth against Vegas in the best-of-7 first round. Game 1 is at SAP Center on Wednesday (10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS2, NBCSCA, ATTSN-RM).

"It's a good feeling going into the postseason healthy," Thornton said. "It's a luxury to have."

In 2017, Thornton tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee April 2. He returned two weeks later and played the final four games of a six-game loss to the Edmonton Oilers in the first round.

In 2018, Thornton tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee Jan. 23, just as he started to look like himself again with 26 points (11 goals, 15 assists) in a 28-game stretch. He thought he might be able to return for the Western Conference Final, but he didn't get the chance. Vegas defeated San Jose in the second round.

"I think last year was mainly just to come out and kind of support the guys in that sense," Thornton said. "I really didn't know … I was close to playing. But you kind of miss the guys. I was out since January, so it was just kind of get with the guys again, get the camaraderie again."

Video: SJS@VAN: Pavelski nets PPG, Thornton ties Yzerman

The guys appreciated it.

"It's Joe Thornton, you know?" defenseman Brenden Dillon said.

One of the greatest players in NHL history and the heartbeat of the locker room.

"He's important," coach Peter DeBoer said. "His passion for the game, those guys seeing that, how badly he wants to be out there, that's stuff you can't coach and you can't replicate. It's critical to our group."

This season, Thornton dealt with knee and ankle infections, plus a broken toe.

"Some weird, weird stuff," Thornton said.

Thornton missed nine games from Oct. 8-28 and played through discomfort afterward. He had 18 points (six goals, 12 assists) through his first 34 games.

But after Jan. 7, he was the Sharks' third-leading scorer with 33 points (10 goals, 23 assists) in 39 games.

Video: Previewing Golden Knights-Sharks First Round series

"Once the new year kind of hit, my health was great," Thornton said. "I started to get some strength back in my leg and started to play some good hockey in the last month or so. So real excited for this."

Thornton is the leading active scorer in the NHL and 14th in history with 1,478 points. He's the leading active playmaker in the League and eighth in history with 1,065 assists. 

Yet he accepts a third-line role at this stage of his career. He averaged 15:33 of ice time in the regular season, almost three minutes less than last season and the lowest since he averaged 15:21 with the Boston Bruins in 1998-99, when he was 19 and in his second NHL season.

That gives the Sharks a one-two-three punch down the middle of Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and Joe Thornton. That makes the third-line wingers better, that makes the Sharks deeper, and that creates matchup problems for the opposition.

"I've had great players at the end of their career," DeBoer said. "It hasn't been easy transitioning to less minutes or less starts or less of a role. And he's been fantastic.

"He's all about the team, and it's not lip service and it's not depending on the day or how he's feeling. It's every day. He lives it. It's a pleasure to work with a guy like that, because it's real and we've never had one issue about what his role's going to be as long as we're moving the team towards winning."

Thornton turns 40 on July 2. He's on a one-year contract. Who knows how many playoff runs he has left?

"I've taken an approach of day by day for the last five or six years," Thornton said. "It's a healthy way to live for me. Never take anything for granted. And I think the last couple years with some injuries, it's a good way to have an outlook on hockey. Just live it one day at a time."

Soak it in.

"You want to go out there and play for guys that have done it forever," Braun said. "This is a big run for him, and guys know that, that we've got to … It's a big run for all of us. You never know if you'll get a shot again. Just to have that extra motivation is great."

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