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His Time Has Come (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday October 2, 2007 11:02AM; Updated: Tuesday October 2, 2007 11:02AM
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Thornton's resolve (and his 11 points in 11 games) inspired teammates in last spring's postseason.
Thornton's resolve (and his 11 points in 11 games) inspired teammates in last spring's postseason.
Noah Graham/Getty Images
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"Our team has shot itself in the foot so many times," McLaren says. "One mistake tends to trouble us more than it should. One mistake last year [in Game 4] cost us a round. Or two."

The best passing center west of Sidney Crosby wasn't on the ice at that moment, but Thornton will not take a pass on the responsibility, even if he thought he had a creditable playoffs. He still has not defined himself as a clutch player, but compared with his history as a playoff wallflower, the 2007 postseason was a virtual debutante ball. Thornton, who tied a team playoff record with assists in seven straight games, averaged a point per match after having totaled only eight goals and 19 assists in his previous 46 playoff games. While ribs were the most noteworthy part of his anatomy in his checkered playoff past -- soldiering on despite cartilage damage, Thornton went pointless in 2004 with Boston, which fell in seven games to Montreal in the first round -- last spring it was his spine. "You saw it in Game 3 against Detroit," Sharks winger Mike Grier says. "We had a great first period, a bad second period. The look in Joe's eyes after that period kind of kept guys going. He wasn't happy. Then he went out in the third period and dominated."

There are other reasons to believe that Thornton -- who would play only 23 more games for the Bruins after those '04 playoffs before being traded in what will go down among the top front-office gaffes in Boston sports history -- is ready to propel his team deep into the postseason. "I sensed a little different Joe in the playoffs last year, and more important, Joe did too," Ron Wilson says. "There was a fire and a hunger. Maybe in the past he'd more readily accept a poor performance from a teammate as long as he did well himself. Now you saw a little more urgency. This is a process you see for a lot of players who are exposed to that kind of scrutiny, like Steve Yzerman or Joe Sakic. Even in basketball, Michael Jordan -- and I'm not saying [Joe is] Michael Jordan -- needed six years or so. Jordan won, not because he was a better player but because he put pressure on teammates to be better. This is not about points but about doing something that most helps the team."

For Thornton, this will be about expanding his horizons and taking shots. The Great Wall is swell, but he must also leave the comforts of home along the left half-wall on the power play and venture to exotic locales like the front of the net. And he'll need to shoot more. Of the NHL's top 14 point scorers last season, Thornton took the fewest shots -- averaging 2.6 a game. While his 114 points were second only to Crosby's 120, Thornton's 22 goals tied for 87th in the league. One Western Conference scout says the key to stopping the Sharks is not to gear checkers and defensemen to stop Thornton but instead to stifle his linemates; with Thornton's pass-first mentality, he often throws the puck into traffic and squanders scoring opportunities.

Ron Wilson says Thornton had a better season in 2006-07 than he did in '05-06, when he led the NHL in scoring -- even though Thornton was bothered all last season by broken toes on his right foot. "Broken toe, broken finger, strep throat... didn't miss a day of practice," Doug Wilson says. "I went to our trainers and asked what was going on, and they said he simply refused to take a day off."

Thornton is at a crossroads in his NHL journey: He can dominate or defer, fly the plane or clamber into a middle seat and come along on the ride, the accidental star. (Quick story: On his six-hour flight to the All-Star Game in Los Angeles in 2002, the hulking Thornton was assigned a middle seat in coach. Never complained. The slightly built guy on the aisle explained he was too claustrophobic to switch seats. "No problem," said Thornton.) Given the Sharks' surfeit of scoring forwards, promising young defensemen, and the team's vow to pay more attention to detail, Thornton's itinerary, if not the parade route, has been mapped out.

Thornton has also penciled in his plans for next summer. He and Pfendsack will visit Thailand and make a stop at Mount Everest. Of course, if Thornton and the Sharks reach the NHL summit, the trip likely will be postponed. As Thornton, who spends his off-seasons in Ontario, says, "The best vacation would be just hanging around and partying with the Cup."

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