The rugged centre had three assists in leading San Jose to a 4-1 victory the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday night to move the Sharks ahead of Minnesota into fifth place in the Western Conference. “Right now it’s all team-oriented,” Thornton said. “We want to do well in the playoffs and win a Stanley Cup, so (individual) points aren’t an issue.” With 99 points, Thornton is closing in on his third 100-plus point season.
“He was a horse tonight,” San Jose coach Ron Wilson said. “He was dominating every shift.”
None more so than one early in the first period, when Thornton picked up the puck behind the Blackhawks’ net and proceeded to weave around and through Chicago’s defence until he found himself alone at the point.
With the Blackhawks out of position, Thornton fed a wide-open Scott Hannan at the opposite point, who quickly gave the puck to Milan Michalek to the side of the net. He buried the shot past Blackhawks goaltender Patrick Lalime for a 1-0 lead.
That point temporarily tied Thornton with Tampa Bay’s Vincent Lecavalier for second place in the NHL scoring race.
The Blackhawks’ Patrick Sharp scored his 17th goal to tie the score with just under five minutes left in the first period. Martin Havlat fed Rene Bourque, who took a wrist shot that was stopped by San Jose goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, but Sharp pounced on the rebound in the slot.
It was one of the lone bright spots for the Blackhawks, who were eliminated from playoff contention after losing at Columbus on Tuesday night.
“Playing defence against Joe Thornton is the toughest job I’ve had in the NHL so far,” Sharp said.
Michalek scored the go-ahead goal on a power play at 10:03 of the second period, while Thornton assisted on both of Jonathan Cheechoo’s goals (26, 27), as well as on Michalek’s third-period score.
“With Cheechoo and Michalek on the wing (with Thornton), they play so well together,” Sharp said. “They’re so dangerous every time they’re out there.”
Cheechoo matched Thornton’s three points, with two goals and an assist, including a power-play score that gave San Jose a 3-1 lead just over 5 minutes into the third period.
“We just worked really hard as a line and we know where each other is going to be,” Thornton said. “Obviously we’re playing with a lot of confidence right now. Milan is playing great and Cheechoo is putting it in the back of the net.”
Thornton’s confidence is contagious.
“You know, with the guys we have on the power play, it’s not just only about getting a good bounce,” Cheechoo said.
If the Thornton, Cheechoo, Michalek line keeps clicking, then San Jose can begin to gaze past fifth place and look to corral Anaheim (98 points) for first place in the Pacific Division.
Winners of five of their last six games, the Sharks know they have the defence to compete for a division, if not Stanley Cup title, with Nabokov (seven shutouts) between the pipes. Nabokov stopped 28 shots, highlighted by a diving snare of a shot by Havlat with the score tied 1-1 in the second period.
“Joe’s line played really well for us,” Nabokov said. “We’ll take the two points right now, that’s the most important part.”
Notes: The Blackhawks have not made a Stanley Cup appearance since 2002. … Prior to their final meeting of the season Wednesday night, San Jose had posted a 3-0 mark, with a 13-3 goals margin against the Blackhawks. … Bill Guerin had four goals for San Jose in his last four games. The Sharks are second in the NHL in converting power plays (22 per cent), while the Blackhawks are last (12.4 per cent).