Because the Sharks fancy themselves as a team that's a sum of their parts, it's a relief to see they have all their pieces back in place to give themselves a fighting chance.
Top-line center and spiritual leader Joe Thornton returned to the San Jose lineup for Game 3 on Sunday night, had an impact, and prescribed himself good to go for Tuesday's Game 4, which looms as a pivotal game in this best-of-seven Western Conference first-round match-up against the Edmonton Oilers.
"I felt great," Thornton said. "I feel healthy and I'm ready to go for Game 4 now." After getting injured on April 2 in Vancouver, Thornton missed the final three games of the regular season and the first two games of the playoffs. Fitted with a brace for the first time in his illustrious career, Thornton went about his business at the outset of Game 3 as if he hadn't missed any time at all.v And it was an inspiration to his teammates.
"It's great having Jumbo back," Sharks center Logan Couture said. "He's an emotional and vocal leader. He's a guy that is incredible what he plays through. The heart that guy has is pretty unbelievable."
Couture, who too is playing through an injury, removed the full face cage from his mask for Sunday's tilt as he returned to his natural spot between wingers Patrick Marleau and Joel Ward.
"I think Jumbo playing gave us a jolt right off the bat," Sharks center Chris Tierney said. Thornton came out firing, literally. He put two shots on goal, had two more attempts blocked and sent a fifth drive wide all in the opening 20 minutes, which was San Jose's best period of Sunday's tight 1-0 loss. Clearly Thornton was energized to be back. He had appeared in all 121 of San Jose's postseason games since acquired from Boston in November of 2005 until the outset of this series.
"Coming home, playing in this building, you could feel the excitement and having him come back as well you could feel it again in warm-ups," Sharks captain Joe Pavelski said. "It was definitely a boost."
As much of a boost as it was for the hosts, Jumbo's return forced opposing coach Todd McLellan to make a move on the fly. Sensing his Oilers needed to combat San Jose's depth down the middle of the ice now with Thornton, Couture, Tomas Hertl and Tierney manning the four pivot spots, the ex-Sharks coach moved Leon Draisaitl from right wing on Connor McDavid's top line to centering a third group with wingers Drake Caggiula and Zack Kassian flanking the 21-year-old.
"When you're on the road you don't always get what you want," McLellan said. "With Jumbo coming back in the game they were big and strong down the middle - it's one of their strengths. We started our night one way, but I don't think it was working in our favor so we moved a few things around."
The move proved advantageous as Draisaitl and Kassian helped to force a San Jose turnover before Kassian scored his second game-deciding goal in as many contests midway through the third period.
"One-goal game that could have gone either way, but we've still got another level to go to next game," Thornton said.
Thornton & Co. know breaking through against Oilers goalie Cam Talbot will be a key to Tuesday's Game 4. The Sharks will look to try and shield his vision more, and try to take advantage on a power play that has struck just once in 14 tries in the first three games. Having Thornton back can only help their cause. And despite the loss, he was a factor in Game 3.
"Thornton was great. He's our emotional leader. Gutsy effort by him," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. "There was just no keeping him out. I think he came out and had a great game for us for not playing in awhile."