Joe Thornton Leading The Charge For San Jose's Oft-criticized Top Line

SAN JOSE, CA - MAY 12: Joe Thornton #19 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates after they beat the Detroit Red Wings in Game Seven of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at HP Pavilion on May 12, 2011 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The stats sheet doesn’t tell the whole story.

If it did, Joe Thornton’s statistical showing in game seven, a single assist in the first period of what was the most important game in San Jose Sharks franchise history, would suggest that he had a less than spectacular night when his team needed him most.

Perhaps that is how history will remember his game. Referring to the stat sheet is a tried and true method of determining Thornton’s performance, a method used by many to criticize Thornton and his linemates for years now. Numbers that are easily regurgitated to support an argument that took roots back before Thornton was even a member of the San Jose Sharks.

It would be tragic if Thornton’s game is relegated to that sole assist. Tragic because Friday night’s game was one of the best of his career.

Thornton has had his share of multi-point games. He’s broken franchise records and earned NHL awards for scoring brilliance. But never in a Sharks postseason has Thornton looked so comfortable matched up against opposing team's top defensive pairings, and most importantly, never has he looked so at ease shutting down an opposition's best line. All those traits were present in game seven, as Jumbo Joe reached Wooly Mammoth size and outchanced Detroit 11-3 when he was on the ice. Those numbers led all forwards, with only the equally impressive Dan Boyle matching Thornton's +8 differential.

For three years running Todd McLellan has elected to go power versus power at home, running out Thornton & Co. against whatever the opposing coach has to offer. Call it faith, call it confidence, call it what you will. But for the first time in as many years the Sharks top line is decisively winning those battles, doing so without sacrificing their scoring talents in the offensive zone.

"People have criticized Joe Thornton, said he's not a playoff guy," stated Devin Setoguchi in the post-game interview. "But the passion he played with [in game seven] is just a clear example of what Jumbo brings to our team. He's our Captain, he's got to be our catalyst. It's going to start with him. He worked extremely hard and it rubbed off on everyone else."

In total Thornton racked up six assists and eight takeaways in seven games set against Detroit, setting both an offensive and defensive example for the team to follow. Devin Setoguchi potted five goals that included an overtime hat trick game winner in Joe Louis Arena. And Patrick Marleau, who received heaps of criticism throughout the series as he went pointless through six games, went on to score the eventual game winner that sent San Jose into the Western Conference Finals.

According to Copper & Blue's excellent scoring chance analysis, San Jose's top line was the best in the entire series at even strength. Thornton, Marleau, and Setoguchi combined for a +14 mark in the even strength scoring chance department, trouncing the second line of Clowe, Couture, and Heatley who were a combined +2, and thoroughly outplaying the third line of Pavelski, Mitchell, and Wellwood who were a combined -12. That speaks volumes about the Sharks ability to pit power against power this postseason.

Most importantly, it speaks of its importance. As the old and fatigued saying goes, "Your best players have to be your best players in the postseason". Against Detroit, especially in game seven, San Jose got just that.

With a game-winning goal potentially kicking the notoriously streaky Patrick Marleau into gear, and Devin Setoguchi already in the midst of a scoring binge, rest assured Thornton will be leading the way for the Sharks top unit. He's been too good this postseason to slow down now, too focused to lose sight of what lies just beyond the Western Conference Finals.

San Jose starts their series on the road against Vancouver. As we speak, Canucks Head Coach Alain Vigneault is furiously working to find the right combination of players to slow Thornton's line, tinkering with matchups and poring over game tape. Something tells us he isn't reading all too much however.

Because the book on Thornton? The one he and every other opposing coach in the League has had earmarked for years now?

That book has a new protagonist.

And he looks a helluva lot more imposing than the old.

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