One of the key ingredients to a successful advance through the Stanley Cup Playoffs is having an experienced veteran leading the way. This year, that someone for the San Jose Sharks has been center Joe Thornton.
In the same spirit as recent examples like Marian Hossa (Chicago Blackhawks), Zdeno Chara (Boston Bruins) and Nicklas Lidstrom (Detroit Red Wings), Thornton has served as the Sharks' critical veteran presence throughout San Jose's postseason run to the Stanley Cup Final.
The Pittsburgh Penguins lead the best-of-7 series 3-2. Game 6 is at SAP Center on Sunday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).
Thornton, 36, has 18 assists, which ranks second to teammate Logan Couture (20) among all players this postseason. Thornton's 18 assists are the most in a single NHL postseason by a player aged 35 or older.
At age 37, Steve Yzerman had 17 assists for the Detroit Red Wings in the 2002 playoffs, as did Larry Robinson, 36, for the Montreal Canadiens in the 1987 playoffs.
With three goals, Thornton has 21 points this postseason, which ranks fifth in the 35-and-older age group. The single-season record is held by Brett Hull, 35, who scored 24 points for the Dallas Stars in the 2000 playoffs. Yzerman, 35, (23 points, 2002) is tied with Frank Mahovlich, 35, of the Montreal Canadiens (23 points, 1973) for second most, and Jean Beliveau, who scored 22 points for the Canadiens in 1971 at age 39, is next.
A man possessed
Thornton's contributions go beyond what is captured on the scoresheet. He is a dominant puck possession player who is among the NHL's best at moving the puck up the ice and creating scoring chances.
The Sharks have taken 388 shot attempts while he has been on the ice, and have allowed 337, for a shot attempt differential (SAT) of plus-51. That ranks second on the team to linemate Tomas Hertl, who is plus-59.
To put it other terms, the Sharks are responsible for 53.5 percent of all on-ice shot attempts when Thornton is on the ice, and 45.7 percent when he's not.
From either perspective of scoring or shot-based statistics, Thornton's postseason success is nothing new.
Prior to a five-game road trip that began Dec. 15, the Sharks were on a six-game losing streak, and were 23rd in the League, fifth in the Pacific Division with a record of 14-14-1, and facing their first back-to-back playoff absence since 1996-97.
From that point, Thornton was the NHL's most powerful offensive force, which helped make the Sharks one of the most dangerous teams. Thornton led the NHL with 51 assists, 12 more than Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators (39).
In that time span, Thornton also tied Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the League scoring lead with 66 points, and was tied with linemate Joe Pavelski for ninth in the NHL with a plus-21. Add in his playoff scoring, and Thornton has 18 goals, 69 assists and 87 points in 76 games since Dec. 15.
In terms of the shot-based statistics, the Sharks dominated opponents 777-586 in shot attempts in that time span, for a plus-191 that ranked No. 15 in the NHL. They were responsible for 56.2 percent of the shots when Thornton was on the ice, compared to 50.0 percent when he was not.
Thornton's success helped guide the Sharks to a 32-16-5 record the rest of the way, which ranked No. 6 in the NHL, and a 14-9 record in the playoffs.
In all-time conversation
Thornton has extended his career totals to 121 points (27 goals, 94 assists) in 155 games. Among active NHL players, he ranks third in assists, behind Jaromir Jagr of the Florida Panthers (123) and Hossa (97), and is tied with Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks for No. 6 in points. Jagr leads active NHL players with 201 postseason points.
With continued scoring success in Game 6, Thornton has the opportunity to move up the leaderboard, and establish himself as one of the most accomplished playoff performers of recent times.
More importantly, he can be the key, veteran presence who can help lead the Sharks to victory, forcing a Game 7, and a chance to win the most important prize of them all, the Stanley Cup.
by Rob Vollman / NHL.com Correspondent