2008-09 NHL Playoffs – Joe Thornton: Too Little, Too Late…Again

LOS ANGELES — When San Jose Sharks superstar center Joe Thornton dropped the gloves with Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf just two seconds into Game 6 of their Western Conference quarterfinal playoff series, it was too little, too late.

Thornton, who scored just one goal and contributed four assists in the six-game series, failed to show any fight in his game until it was too late, helping lead his team down the drain, losing the series in six games.

The Sharks have a reputation of being playoff busts, failing to get out of the second round in four straight seasons. This is also a team that reached the Western Conference Finals in 2003-04 and has been among the elite teams in the conference since then.

This season, the Sharks won the President’s Trophy, leading the National Hockey League with a 53-18-11 record, good for 117 points.

Indeed, the regular season has been kind to the Sharks.

The Sharks were led this season by Thornton, who scored 25 goals and added 61 assists for 86 points. He was followed by team captain Patrick Marleau, who scored 38 goals and contributed 33 assists for 71 points.

After the two veteran leaders, three younger players, right wing Devin Setoguchi, center Joe Pavelski and left wing Milan Michalek, contributed much of the Sharks’ offense.

Setoguchi, in just his first full season in the NHL, ranked third on the team in scoring with 31 goals and 34 assists good for 65 points in 81 games. He was followed by Pavelski’s 25 goals and 34 assists for 59 points and Michalek’s 23 goals and 34 assists for 57 points.

But the Sharks coasted down the stretch, struggling a bit with a 10-9-4 record over their final 23 games, losing three of their final five games, including two straight losses to the lowly Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Coyotes.

Without momentum heading into the playoffs and given their poor playoff history, the Sharks were a prime target for an upset. The Ducks took advantage by pounding on the Sharks from the outset of the series while the Sharks’ response was feeble at best.

And it wasn’t that the Ducks were playing dirty. Rather, they took every opportunity to hit the Sharks’ top offensive threats who failed to show the heart and emotion needed to respond.

But there was one player who failed to respond the most. That player was none other than Joe Thornton.

To be sure, it is easy to pick on Thornton. After all, he stands out at 6-4, 235 pounds. More significant, the Boston Bruins gave up on him because of his inability to carry his team in the post-season.

But that’s just it….Thornton has the size and strength to take a beating and even dish it out and he certainly has the skill to take over a game—he is the Sharks’ best player. Nevertheless, he failed to muster up much of anything in response to the punishment he took from Getzlaf, that is, until the 0:02 mark of the first period in Game 6 when his frustration and anger boiled over in his fight with the Ducks’ top center.

But the fight was likely motivated by Thornton’s frustration and anger as opposed to him trying to inspire and lead his team after Getzlaf had frustrated him at virtually every turn in the series.

At 6-4, 221 pounds, Getzlaf is no slouch. But Thornton paled in comparison when push came to shove in the corners, along the boards and in front of either net. To be sure, he led his team by example, but in the wrong direction. His teammates followed his lead, losing the majority of the physical battles in the trenches—exactly where the Ducks won the series.

Without question, Marleau, Setoguchi, Pavelski and Michalek seemed to follow Thornton’s lead and they too contributed little in the series, also displaying little in terms of heart or emotion.

Meanwhile, Ducks goaltender Jonas Hiller was outstanding, outplaying his counterpart, San Jose’s Evgeni Nabokov. However, Hiller got a lot of help from the Sharks who played way too soft in this series, making Hiller’s job a lot easier.

Hiller should thank his buddy, Thornton, his teammate at HC Davos in the Swiss League during the 2004-05 lockout year, for helping him out.

Thornton’s best playoff years were in 2006-07 and 2007-08, both with San Jose, when he scored a goal with ten assists in eleven games in 2006-07, and two goals with eight assists for ten points in 13 games in 2007-08.

Nevertheless, the superstar center has never been able to lead his teams out of the second round and in five out of the nine times his teams qualified for post-season play, they were eliminated in the first round.

Four of those five came while Thornton was with Boston, and certainly influenced the Bruins to trade him to the Sharks in the 2005-06 season.

Fast forward to 2009 and Thornton continues to sputter in the playoffs. Given his inability to lead his team to a stronger response against Anaheim and with the Sharks having to endure yet another early exit from the post-season, especially after winning the President’s Trophy, Thornton will be labeled as a playoff bust for another season.

The question now is whether or not he can ever lose that reputation.

It certainly seems that the answer is no.

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