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Thornton leading the way for Sharks

by Dave Lozo
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Remember when Joe Thornton had a reputation as someone who would never come up big during the postseason? With every passing game during the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, that notion is becoming more and more ridiculous.

Through 16 games, Thornton is tied for the League lead in points with 17. His 14 assists are one more than Vancouver's Henrik Sedin, who is second to Thornton in that category. That offense has been complemented by a newfound dedication to defense -- he's second in the playoffs with 20 takeaways after leading the League during the regular season with 114.

Thornton isn't prone to discussing his stigma as someone disappeared during the postseason, mainly because he doesn't care what people outside the locker room of the San Jose Sharks think about him. He's also not big on talking about his individual achievements, instead choosing to share the accolades with teammates.

But linemate Devin Setoguchi was more than willing to speak about that topic.

"For him, it's not a big deal leading the playoffs in points," Setoguchi said. "People look at it now and see he is leading in points, he is doing everything he needs to do. We believe in him in here and that's the main part. We don't care about what other people say about what we do in here."

There's no denying the results for Thornton have been vastly different when comparing his regular-season and postseason numbers.

Thornton has 1,001 points in 995 career regular season games. During the postseason, he has 82 points in 107 games and his 17 points during these playoffs are by far a career best.

The real contrast has been defensively. While a player shouldn't be judged on his defensive play solely by plus/minus, Thornton is minus-26 in his postseason career and plus-135 in the regular season.

However, Thornton has made improvements this year. After finishing last year's playoffs as a minus-11, he's a minus-3 this year. It's not going to place him in the running for the Selke Trophy, but the change in his mindset has made a difference.

"We've been talking about Joe for a while now," defenseman Dan Boyle said. "He's turning into a two-way player. He's been a rock for us, and his two-way play has been good. He's also getting the offensive side of things, which he's always done. He's just being rewarded now for some of the passes he's making that maybe he wasn't in the regular season."

"He's got it all," Setoguchi said. "He's rounded his game off completely, which is what coaches always wanted him to do, and what he's always wanted to do. He's playing great."

When asked what's been the reason for his outstanding postseason, Thornton said he doesn't feel any different this year as compared to last year.

"I feel good," Thornton said. "I'm just comfortable with my game. Last year I felt comfortable and this year I feel comfortable."

First impressions usually mean a lot, and Thornton's first taste of the postseason when he was with the Boston Bruins cemented his status as an underachiever in the playoffs. In 35 postseason games with the Bruins, Thornton had 6 goals and 12 assists and was held without a point during a six-game loss in 1998 and a seven-game loss in 2004.

Thornton has said he's changed since his Boston days, that he's grown up a lot since he was that 18-year-old with a world of pressure placed on his shoulders. His numbers with the Sharks prove that. In 72 playoff games with the Sharks, he has 12 goals and 52 assists.

Coach Todd McLellan said at this time of year, for better or for worse, players like Thornton will always be singled out.

"When it's all said and done, 1 of 30 teams wins," McLellan said. "The other 29 teams are given some sort of criticism, they're being second-guessed for whatever reason, and it often started with high-end players, highly compensated players, players that have high expectations of them.  Sometimes it's very fair and very just, other times they just happen to be lightning rods.  Sometimes it's very deserving, and sometimes very unjust.

"Jumbo, you can see how he's elevated his game, how important it is to him, the impact he has on his teammates in the locker room and on the ice. That's a sign of leadership."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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