Posted: Friday May 5, 2006 2:08PM; Updated: Monday May 8, 2006 10:13PM
After being kept in check by Nashville's banged-up defense, Joe Thornton will have to get by Chris Pronger in the second round.
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So Joe Thornton was named as one of the three finalists for the Hart Trophy. The award honors the most valuable player of the NHL's regular season, and that, no matter how you look at it, is a pretty sweet pat on the back.
"Most valuable" means different things to different voters, of course, but in Thornton's case, the root of the acclaim is pretty obvious.
After joining a moribund San Jose squad on Nov. 30, Thornton finally began living up to the promise that made him the first overall pick back in 1997. He galvanized the sinking Sharks -- a team that had lost 10 in a row and was already eight points out of a playoff spot -- into one of the league's most dangerous opponents in the second half.
Thornton also turned Jonathan Cheechoo into the league's most deadly sniper. Let that sink in for a moment -- Jonathan Cheechoo. And Thornton led the league in scoring. Amazingly, his 96 assists alone were greater than the total points (94) compiled by the 2003-04 Art Ross winner, Martin St. Louis.
Thornton was a second-half wrecking ball, running roughshod over a Western Conference that hadn't seen such a combination of size, strength and touch since Mark Messier's heyday in Edmonton. But that was the regular season. And as the Red Wings or maybe Jaromir Jagr can tell you, what you accomplished from October to April doesn't count for all that much as spring rolls into summer. Everyone starts with a clean slate and a whole lot to prove.
Some people just have more to prove than others. Thornton's one of them.
Here's the thing: He's picked up a rep as a guy who can't be counted on in the playoffs. At times, that might have been unfair -- the seven-game goose egg he laid in 2003-04 against Montreal could be attributed at least somewhat to a rib injury. But he has also flat-out failed to rise to the occasion as well. His inability to ratchet up his game for the playoffs in 2002-03 after a spectacular 101-point regular season set in motion his banishment from Boston.
Thornton's playoff résumé prior to this season read 6-12-18 in 35 games. That might be fine for a guy like, say, Brendan Morrison, but nobody has ever mentioned his name when MVP ballots were being passed around.
Thornton needs to show that he can be the same player in May and June that he was in March and April. Despite the Sharks' five-game dismissal of Nashville, he's not off to a good start. Although he posted four assists in the series, he was far from Hart-like, checked into virtual submission by a banged up Preds defense.
And it's only going to get tougher. He won't be contending with Kimmo Timonen, Brendan Witt and Dan Hamhuis when the Oilers come a-knockin'. He'll have to find a way to fight through Chris Pronger, the guy who was the most dominating skater in the first round.