By Larry Wigge
Joe Thornton wants what 22 members of the Los Angeles Kings enjoyed just last spring -- an opportunity to play for and win the Stanley Cup.
The San Jose Sharks' big center has been the No. 1 overall pick in the National Hockey League in the 1997 Entry Draft, he's led the NHL in scoring with 125 points combined in Boston and San Jose in 2005-06 and he won the Hart Trophy as the league's Most Valuable Player that same year. Thornton was a part of the 2010 gold-medal winning Olympic Team. But ...
The 6-4, 225-pound center doesn't want any individual awards. He has plenty of them. He wants to lift the Cup in celebration for everyone to see. Fans of his and his critics, who have judged him as lazy, not one of those players who will do anything to win.
"The Hart Trophy (NHL MVP for '05-06) is on the mantle in my dad's house in St. Thomas, Ontario," Thornton said. "I'm more interested in the big trophy. The Stanley Cup is all about sacrifices to be a winning team. That's my goal."
This is the Thorntnon's eighth season in San Jose and though the Sharks have had 99, 107, 108 and a league-high 117 points in 2008-09 as well as 113 and 105 points the next two seasons, they have yet to get out of the second round of the playoffs. And that's Thornton's biggest concern.
"In the past, we've had good teams here ... but we were always looking too far ahead," Thornton explained. "Successful teams work their tails off in the regular season to be ready for what's coming. That's been our mindset here. Each day we go over how we can be ready. How we can be better?"
Call it one small step for San Jose and one giant leap for the Stanley Cup theory, OK?
Thornton proved a good fit with the Sharks from the beginning. It's no coincidence that San Jose has posted an incomparable mark since acquiring Thornton from Boston in a November 30, 2005 trade.
"I felt it was important to build a team around him," GM Doug Wilson explained. "Steve Yzerman didn’t win until his 12th year. It's a team game built around your difference makers."
Smart. Strong. Deceptive with the puck. Jumbo Joe is a great passer and a force every time he's on the ice.
"All I know is the only time you know he's not going to hurt you is when you see him physically sitting on the bench," St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said late in the season. "He's just so big and skilled with the puck. He's got so much stamina that he can beat you in the first 10 seconds of a shift or the last 15 seconds. That's how much of a threat he is out there."
The only numbers the 33-year-old center is concerned with now is the 16 wins in the playoffs it takes to win the Cup. And, to date, the Sharks are two wins short of making it the conference finals.
All they have to do is rally to beat the Kings, who have a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference Semifinal Series.
Since Joe became the captain of the Sharks prior to the 2010-11 season, he has taken it upon himself to be the heart-and-soul leader.
"As far as leadership goes, the older you get the more comfortable you feel in your skin," said Thornton. "Leadership comes a little bit easier with age."
He still led the Sharks with 40 points in 48 games. But he is averaging a point-per-game pace in the playoffs -- nine points on one goal and eight assists.
Thornton had three assists in Game 4 vs. Vancouver in the first round of the playoffs on May 7.
"Jumbo's play has been essential moving forward," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "We're focused on playoffs right now, but our playoffs started a month and a half ago, just to get in and compete ... and he led that resurgence as well.
"Jumbo's very accepting of what we want to accomplish as a team. He puts himself second and the team first."
Thornton’s leadership and three-zone play powered a late-season surge, which included a seven-game winning streak. San Jose was able to secure the sixth seed in the West.
King coach Darryl Sutter says Thornton's been a handful, "Everybody played against Thornton tonight (Game 4). He's a handful ... everybody has to."
For the first eight games of the playoffs, Joe Thornton has produced an eye-popping statistic -- he was on the ice for the Sharks 17 goals for and only one against.
The defending champions last years were able to minimize the impact of the top players on the opposition.
"Joe Thornton is a little more of a dynamic player than we played in the first round, no knock on St. Louis," Kings defenseman Rod Scuderi said. "That's just the type of player he is. He's big. He's tough to get the puck away from.
"When you limit his options, he seems to find another way out. If we're going to win this series, it's up to us to try to box him in and minimize his input."
"He's our leader for a reason," said forward Brent Burns, who scored the game's first goal in the first period on a pass from Thornton. "It's awesome to play with him when he's playing like that. It's a lot of fun."
Thornton started the game like he was shot from a cannon ... and kept the pace through most of the game.
"Joe was dominant tonight," Sharks center Logan Couture said. "That was vintage Joe Thornton. Unbelievable -- creating turnovers, making passes, skating. Skating like a young guy. He was flying. Me personally, got me going. We need Joe to play like that for the rest of the playoffs."
Said McLellan, "He can be a very dominant man when he's playing hard and strong through the middle of the ice going to the net. It was as simple as saying, 'Look what happens when you do this and when you do that. Which player do you want to be?'
"Joe was a little too predictable in my opinion. He was stationary and everything ran through him. Now we have movement around the ice in other areas and that makes a big difference."
With each game that goes by Joe Thornton is getting closer to that one big award -- the Stanley Cup.