SAN JOSE -- For the first time in Joe Thornton's Stanley Cup Playoff career, the San Jose Sharks captain had been flying a bit under the radar, sharing the attention and pressure on a team that has a longer list of stars and characters than in the past.
Center - SJS
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 8 | PTS: 9
SOG: 20 | +/-: 6
But the man they call "Jumbo Joe" was in full view Tuesday night at HP Pavilion, dominating Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals and leading the Sharks to a 2-1 victory that squared the series at two wins apiece.
"I think everybody has been talking about his first period," linemate Brent Burns said Wednesday after a team meeting and optional skate. "I really think he has been great. I think he's always on another level from a lot of players. In the playoffs he's really stepped it up and he's been playing great hockey for a while now. Last night it was maybe more noticeable that he was playing great. For me, being on his line, I don't think he was ever slow. He's always been great. It's definitely fun to play with a guy like that."
An energized Thornton did some of his best work early in the first period when he forced a turnover, won a race to the puck, then sent a cross-ice pass to Burns in the left circle. Burns' first shot was blocked. No problem. Thornton got the puck again and sent another cross-ice pass to Burns, who ripped a shot past Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick, giving the Sharks a 1-0 lead.
Thornton has quietly put up some stunning numbers throughout the playoffs. While he has been on the ice, the Sharks have scored 17 goals and allowed one. Ten of those goals were on the power play and seven came at even strength.
"That's not a bad stat at all," Sharks forward Patrick Marleau said. "He's playing well. That whole line has been playing well, especially last game. ... He's playing great. The way he's been skating and getting in on the forecheck, using his strengths, using his size and his long reach. It's fun to watch."
Thornton has a plus/minus of plus-6, which leads the Sharks. No other Sharks player is better than plus-3. The center has a team-high eight assists and one goal.
Thornton, in typical fashion, has downplayed talk of his strong performance in the postseason against the Vancouver Canucks and the Kings. He credited linemates Burns and TJ Galiardi, two of the team's freest spirits, for giving him energy and keeping the game fun.
"We just enjoy playing with each other," Thornton said. "I've said it all along. It's just really, really fun playing with those two, and I'm having a lot of fun."
Early in the season, no one could have imagined Thornton, Burns and Galiardi playing together on a line. Burns was a defenseman. Galiardi was on the fourth line -- when he was even in the lineup. But in March, Burns was switched to forward, and Galiardi turned his season around. They wound up skating with Thornton when the Sharks were trying everything they could to jumpstart a stagnant offense.
Surprisingly, this trio of kindred spirits clicked.
"I think it's because the maturity of our line is that of a 7-year-old," Burns said. "It's just fun. We're laughing on the ice, on the bench. Hockey is fun, and you get out there and just work hard. We just have a good time with each other. It's been fun."
Burns plays with a reckless abandon, throwing his big body around. Speedy Galiardi irritates anyone who gets in his path.
"When Burnsie's feeling good and Galli's feeling good, I've just got to keep up with those two guys," Thornton said, smiling.
If Thornton doesn't, he'll hear about it.
"We usually give him [a hard time] if he's not in on the forecheck with us," Galiardi said. "It's sad that he's not mic'd up out there. You could hear him yelling at us every time. There's times when he's closer to the guy who has the puck and he's yelling at us to go.
"Last night it was pretty evident that he's an all-star player. He took the game into his own hands and took over. It just made it easier and made us look good."
During the NHL lockout, Thornton played in Europe. After that came the NHL's 48-game schedule, then the playoffs. Based on Thornton's high-octane performance in Game 4, he doesn't appear in danger of running out of gas.
"He's played hockey since September where a lot of guys had time off, and we were worried about the number of players we had that went over to Europe and how their fatigue level would be at this time of the year," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "We're almost at the end of May now. So Jumbo has had a long year. To see him with that type of stamina is pretty encouraging."
Thornton said, "I feel good. Coaches really gave us a lot of days off down the stretch here. Seems like every second day we get a day off. It's been nice for rest and recovery."
The Sharks undoubtedly will need Thornton at his best to get past the Kings and make an even deeper run in the playoffs.
"Obviously he's a big leader on this team, someone that we look up to to be that person for us every night," Sharks defenseman Brad Stuart said. "He's been doing a lot of good things so far. Last night was a great example of the way he can kind of [take over] a game and influence the outcome. We need him and everybody else to kind of follow behind. It's important to have your best players be your best players this time of year."
So far, Thornton has been exactly that for the Sharks.