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THE BRUINS traded center Joe Thornton to the San Jose Sharks on Nov. 30, 2005, a day that, in Boston, seemed destined to live in infamy. In a city that created a sustainable industry out of the Curse of the Bambino, the exiling of the Bruins captain for three middling players was custom-made to be the source of more sporting hoodoo. The Jinx of Jumbo Joe? When Thornton was named the NHL's most valuable player the following June, the vote couldn't have been more galling to the Hub of hockey if Bucky Dent had been tabulating the ballots. � Three years later that shocking trade has helped produce two torrid, first-place teams: Thornton's new club and, surprisingly, his old one.
At the 2008--09 All-Star break, conference leaders San Jose and Boston stand as exemplars of intelligent redesign. Stale after three straight second-round playoff defeats, the Sharks revitalized themselves and roared through their first 24 home games with 21 wins and just one loss in regulation while making a persuasive case for being the NHL's most complete team. Without dismantling an already formidable core, general manager Doug Wilson tweaked the team last summer by trading for puck-moving defenseman Dan Boyle, signing veteran blueliner Rob Blake and hiring a new, upbeat coach, Todd McLellan. Although the Detroit Red Wings still stalk the Sharks—they were three points behind San Jose through Sunday—the Wings realize that the road to consecutive Stanley Cups will likely take them through the Shark Tank, the Western Conference's most inhospitable arena.
Given its more modest portfolio and lower expectations, Boston, which has not won a playoff series since 1999, has been even more impressive. The Bruins were having their best season ever, with 70 points in 45 games, including an NHL-best 16-5-3 road record. They have capitalized on a first-rate power play, defenseman Zdeno Chara's return to elite form, the sturdy goaltending of Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez and the breakout of second-line center David Krejci to forge a nine-point lead over Washington in the Eastern Conference. (Of the players obtained for Thornton, only winger Marco Sturm, out for the year after having knee surgery last week, remains.) The Bruins still lag behind the city's other teams, but at least hockey season in Boston is no longer defined as the time between the Patriots' last snap and the date that Red Sox pitchers and catchers report.
Beyond the standard qualities of success—strong coaching, special teams and goaltending, plus depth—the Sharks and the Bruins are connected through Thornton, who, since joining San Jose, ranks second in the league with 1.33 points per game. With Thornton's three-year, $20 million contract off the books, new Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli pounced in the summer of 2006, landing free agents Chara and center Marc Savard, whose dazzling play has stopped the fretting over the loss of Thornton. Indeed, the superb performance of both teams can be attributed largely to their No. 1 lines, the two best forward units in hockey this season. Thornton and linemates Patrick Marleau and Devin Setoguchi had combined for 145 points, 24 more than Savard and wingers Phil Kessel and Milan Lucic. The three Bruins were a combined +63, and Savard, suddenly committed to defense after a career of ignoring it, leads the league at +30. The three Sharks are +57.
The differences between those Bruins' and Sharks' lines are visually striking. Savard and Kessel are compact enough to squeeze into the backseat of a VW Beetle, and fit even more comfortably alongside the rampaging Lucic, whom Thornton calls, "the prototypical Bruin." Savard's on-the-tape passes and Kessel's Mach 3 skating and whoosh of a shot allow the line to do most of its damage on the rush. The Sharks' trio—6'4", 235-pound Thornton, 6'2", 220-pound Marleau, 6-foot, 200-pound Setoguchi—does its job by relying on bulk and raw skill. Thornton's line is more effective than Savard's in the offensive zone because it can wear down defenders and score off the cycle.
Yet the lines are curiously alike in other ways. Each has a glorious playmaker. Each has a natural center, Marleau and Kessel (now suffering from a bout of mononucleosis), playing the wing. Each has a complementary second-year winger in Setoguchi and Lucic, who at week's end was day-to-day with an undisclosed injury. The most intriguing commonality is this: Together the lines boast some of most disparaged high-end players of their generation. Thornton, uninspiring. Marleau, undependable. Kessel, soft.
And Savard? Selfish.
THE DAY after Game 4 of Boston's first-round playoff series against Montreal last April, Bruins senior adviser Harry Sinden, in a wide-ranging interview with Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, declared that Savard was not his kind of player, likening him to a baseball player who hits .300 but doesn't drive in runs. The sentiment was hardly groundbreaking for a player who has always been keenly aware of his own offensive statistics—Savard has often piled up points but was a minus player in seven of his eight seasons before coming to Boston—but the source and timing were astounding. For one thing, Sinden, coach of Boston's 1970 Stanley Cup champions and a longtime Bruins G.M., bleeds black and gold. For another, the object of Sinden's derision had scored the overtime winner in Game 3 and was playing with a broken bone in his lower back that he'd sustained three weeks earlier. Reputations such as the one that dogged Savard can be difficult to shed.
"When he got hurt before the playoffs, everyone in the room was kinda, 'O.K., what's Savvy going to do? Is he going to sit out or come back?'" says Chara, the Bruins captain. "His playing hurt, and being one of our best players in a seven-game series showed a lot to his teammates."
Of course, Savard, 31, had always been the center of a paradoxical question: If he takes such joy in passing the puck, how can he be considered selfish? "I see my son play, and all the kids want to do is go coast-to-coast and score, but ever since I was little I've always passed the puck," Savard says. "My mom said that's why other parents always wanted me to sleep over."