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Riding Shotgun with Elite Passers Crosby, Thornton

by Staff Writer / San Jose Sharks

In a game that moves so quickly with a margin of error that is so slim, some players manage to read the game quicker than others.

Consider centers Sidney Crosby and Joe Thornton high on that list.

When the game is played at five-on-five, no two players are assisting at a higher rate than Crosby and Thornton. Since the beginning of the 2011-12 season, Crosby and Thornton rank first and second in even-strength assists per 60 minutes, according to war-on-ice.com.

Riding shotgun with these distributors can be a fruitful assignment, and how teams defend against their linemates is always a key element to how much damage their respective lines can do.

How Crosby and Thornton find their success is actually quite different, though it brings about similar results. Crosby is the firecracker, dynamic skating playmaker that can fly through the neutral zone with a full head of steam before leaving a pass perfectly on the tape of an open teammate.

Thornton is dynamic in his own right, but more deliberate with his 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame. Thornton will lull an opponent into thinking the defensive zone is properly spaced and adequately defended, before he sneaks a pass to a teammate through a passing lane about the width of a puck.

For the teammate in those scenarios, life is pretty good so long as he knows how to complement the playmaker.

During the past three-plus seasons, no skater has played more even-strength minutes with Crosby than Chris Kunitz, and with Thornton than Joe Pavelski. These are two very good forwards in their own rights, but the following charts show how their numbers differ with and without their playmaking center.

PAVELSKI KUNITZ
Goals GF% GF60 iGF60 iSH%     Goals GF% GF60 iGF60 iSH%
w/ Thornton 50 62.8 2.97 1.19 13.7   w/ Crosby 37 67.6 3.95 1.03 13.31
w/out Thornton 17 52.1 1.98 0.69 9.5   w/out Crosby 22 55 3 0.81 9.95
Total 67 59.4 2.6 1 12.3   Total 59 62.4 3.54 0.94 11.82
Stats via stats.hockeyanalysis.com. GF% = goals-for percentage; GF60 = goals-for per 60 minutes; iGF60 = individual goals-for per 60 minutes; iSH% = individual shooting percentage

With Crosby, his pace while maintaining possession stretches his opponents out of position, leaving pockets of ice in the zone for his teammates to skate into. In a game against the Buffalo Sabres this season, Crosby preoccupied almost all five Sabres, giving Kris Letang more than enough space and a high-quality chance.

Crosby corrals a loose puck behind the net, and takes it against the grain. He stops quickly, drawing the attention of four Sabres that are situated down low.

As Crosby reverses the play, he continues create space by drawing players toward him. He passes the puck to Letang, who gives it right back. Even though Crosby isn't in a quality shooting position from below the goal line, as he accepts a return pass, Buffalo seems more preoccupied with him than Letang despite a clear passing lane to the low slot.

When Crosby sends the puck back to Letang, he still has four Sabes watching him, giving Letang a free one-time chance from below the faceoff dot.

Thornton can be just as frustrating to play against because, although he doesn't play with the same level of flash as Crosby, he is still very dangerous. Even though a sequence may seem harmless, or near its end, Thornton can make something happen. On this Pavelski goal against the Detroit Red Wings last season, Thornton buys time on a rush that seems to be over, while Pavelski, like a wide receiver with his quarterback scrambling, comes back to the play and finds an opening.

This is a very well-defended rush by the Red Wings. Thornton is forced to carry the puck wide, and all four Sharks skaters in the neutral zone are accounted for.

As Thornton carries the puck below the circles, there is intially nothing available. He's turned his hips and rotated his shoulders to take himself out of a shooting position, and every teammate is still being tightly covered.

Now comes Thornton's true brilliance. He buys time on the puck, creating a bit of separation between him and Jakub Kindl. Pavelski and Henrik Zetterberg are jostling for position in front, but Zetterberg gets turned around momentarily. Like that wide receiver in a broken play, Pavelski makes eye contact, and Thornton locates a passing lane in a position where Zetterberg can't make a recovery, playing the puck into that space.

Being familiar with Crosby and Thornton allows skaters like Kunitz and Pavelski to play off of what they do so effectively. Knowing their tendencies and habits, which create open ice for their linemates, makes finding open ice easier. When matching up against one of these lines, the concern isn't only how the world-class center can find success, but also how his teammates can.

By Evan Sporer - NHL.com Staff Writer
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