On one level, it was a tale of two (unrelated) Thorntons that set the tone for Tuesday night's NHL playoff action. You had, on the one hand, San Jose's Joe Thornton playing a monster game – or maybe more accurately a Jumbo game – even if his sole contribution on the score sheet was a single assist on Brent Burns's goal during the first period of the Sharks' 2-1 victory over the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.
Then there was also Boston's Shawn Thornton, a different sort of player in a different sort of role, who nevertheless made the most of just over six minutes of playing time to contribute two assists and more importantly was one of the catalysts on the Bruins' fourth line, which ultimately helped them assume a 3-0 stranglehold on their series with the New York Rangers.
But start with the Sharks who, after years of being everybody's choice for the Stanley Cup, were nobody's choice this time around. They were a sixth seed, underdogs against the Vancouver Canucks and a team that regularly followed up a credible regular season with a disappointing season. There wasn't a lot of suggest this year would be any different.
Whenever the Sharks came up just a little short, you usually had your pick of scapegoats – either Patrick Marleau, the former captain, or Thornton, the current captain, both of whom were around for most of the playoff disappointments suffered in the Silicon Valley since the Sharks became legitimate contenders around 2004.
A popular storyline in these playoffs has been how this has become Logan Couture's team now, with Couture emerging as one of the top young players in the game. Couture's value to the Sharks is indisputable – he scored the winner, a Dan Boyle shot deflecting in off his leg – but it is hard to argue, unless you're desperately trying to push a storyline, that Thornton or Marleau are any less important to the Sharks' success these days.
In the series versus the Kings, Thornton's line – with Burns and T. J. Galiardi – has given the Kings all kinds of problems with their size and strength. They've had most of the offensive zone time in the first three games whenever they were on the ice – and the Kings deserve a lot of credit for keeping them on the outside and off the scoreboard even strength until Tuesday night's pivotal game when Burns finally broke through.
Burns had been virtually unstoppable in games against the Kings in the regular season, with eight points in four games, but they'd done a good job of minimizing his impact, if not his presence.
Territorially, the Sharks dominated for the first 40 minutes and limited the Kings to nine shots in that span. Then, after L.A. closed to within one with a third-period power-play goal, it was – as coach Todd McLellan said, 'game on.' The Kings pressed hard – the third-period shots were 14-2 for them – but they couldn't get another one past goalie Antti Niemi. So the series is tied 2-2 heading back to L.A. and it's anybody's guess where it's going from here. Even after the Sharks lost the first two games of the series, McLellan ventured that the current edition of the Sharks had a bit more resilience than previous incarnations, and he was proven correct when they went home and squared the series.
Both teams have been virtually unbeatable at home, and so San Jose's challenge is going to be to take one at the Staples Centre, where the Kings have been on a tear of late – and have yet to lose in the postseason.
Things are not nearly as dramatic over in the Boston-Rangers series, thanks to some work from the Bruins' mostly unheralded fourth line – of Thornton, Greg Campbell and Daniel Paille, who accounted for both goals in the 2-1 victory over New York.
On the play, the Rangers really had no business taking this down to the final four minutes, but goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was a stalwart again. In all, he stopped 32 of 34 shots and Paille's winner was a bit of a fluke – the puck had skipped off the post and Lundqvist couldn't sight in, and Paille found it first and banged it home from the edge of the crease. The Bruins' fourth line is the classic energy unit, but their players seem to have a fair of bit of hockey sense too, especially Campbell, the centre. They don't give up much the other way and they made life miserable for the Rangers, who had enough to deal with, given how well Patrice Bergeron's line has stepped up in this series.
Sometimes, the second round can go fast, when a team gets an early leg up, and that seems to be what's happening between the Bruins and Rangers, both of whom were extended to the limit in the opening round. The breaks seem to be going Boston's way, but as Lundqvist noted post-game, "the game is so fast, you earn your bounces. Hopefully, it turns around for us next game."
The Rangers will undoubtedly note that as recently as three years ago, the Bruins were guilty of blowing a three-game lead against the Philadelphia Flyers, and will try to plant a seed of doubt in their collective minds. But unlike San Jose, where the Sharks look as if they could push the Kings to the limit, New York appears ready to quietly go into the night.
Kings' coach Darryl Sutter was invited to be critical of the referees for a quick whistle on a third-period play when Dustin Penner jammed in a Tyler Toffoli rebound, but he took the high road and refused to play along. "I'm sure it's in the rule book," said Sutter. "When the whistle goes, right? So what are they going to come and tell us? They're going to come and say they lost sight of the puck and they blew the whistle." Sutter was more pointed about the lack of production from his top players – the Anze Kopitar-Dustin Brown-Justin Williams line was shut out at even strength again. "I think our role players kept us in the game, and they have for the last three games" ... The Kings' Twitter feed, which created such a sensation in last year's playoffs for its irreverence, had to issue an apology after the game last night. A local radio morning show host (@TheKevinRyder) took over the Twitter feed for a time during the game and made an inappropriate comment, saying Kopitar was "being sexually assaulted" in front of Niemi. After a flurry of critical responses followed, the Kings later removed the offending tweet and issued mea culpas all around. Ryder eventually issued an apology of his own: "My apology. I made a poor choice in the wording of my tweet. I wish I had used different words. If you were hurt by me, I'm sorry."
THE THRILL IS BACK
An interesting hiring decision by the Nashville Predators Tuesday – adding former NHL defenceman Phil (The Thrill) Housley to Barry Trotz's coaching staff as an assistant, replacing Peter Horachek, who had been Trotz's second in command for the past number of years. Nashville just completed one of its worst seasons ever this year, but general manager David Poile indicated that all members of the coaching staff would return. But Poile was at the world championships, where Housley worked as an assistant to Joe Sacco, and the Preds thought that his skill set as a player – he was a top offensive rearguard – might help them develop additional scoring from their young rearguards. Poile described Housley as bringing "a unique skill set" to the Predators' coaching staff and would "focus his efforts on our young defencemen and assisting on the power play." It will be noteworthy to see how well Housley integrates into the pro game – he's been working with high schoolers mostly of late, and coached the U.S. to the world junior championships last year. The net effect of his presence: Nashville could be a livelier team to watch next season. Or as Trotz put it: "His insight and viewpoint will bring a fresh perspective to our team."