After Joe Thornton scored the game-winning goal late in the third Tuesday to pull his San Jose Sharks to a 2-2 draw in their Western Conference quarterfinal series against Calgary, you could sense the proverbial monkey preparing to pack up and leap off his sizeable back.
For years, the book on the Sharks star center has been a familiar read: Top Gun in the regular season, Pop Gun in the playoffs. And it took only a few games against the Flames before questions regarding his ability to lead a team to a Stanley Cup victory were asked once again.
Like it or lump it, that’s simply part of the territory. From their early teens, pro athletes are made to understand they’ll be ranked, rated and roasted countless times over the course of their career and develop a thick skin to cope with it. They also realize and accept the sole way to shut up their detractors is to win championships.
If you can accomplish that task, just about every past and future transgression (see Lemieux, C.) or eccentricity (see Hasek, D.) will be forgotten and forgiven. And it doesn’t always require a Cup victory to do it, either; some players manage to get the monkey off their back with a stirring playoff run that ends in Stanley Cup final failure (see Iginla, J. and Alfredsson, D).
Thornton still will need to help carry San Jose past Calgary (and very likely, for a couple more playoff rounds) before his past receives a proper burial. But he is far from the only player with an unfortunate reputation to revise. Here are five NHLers – some of them still playing, others who’ll have to wait until next year for their next shot – with something still to prove:
Marty Turco, G, Dallas
It’s hard to believe a guy who posted a .952 save percentage, 1.30 goals-against average and three shutouts for the Stars in the first round of the 2007 post-season would have to deal with questions regarding his playoff worthiness. Yet that’s precisely the situation Turco faced as Dallas prepared to take on Anaheim this spring.
The 32-year-old netminder was focused right off the bat against the Ducks, putting up another shutout in Game 1 and holding the opposition to two goals in the Stars’ Game 2 victory. He’ll have to continue the hot streak at least into the Western Conference final to shut up the naysayers once and for all.
Olli Jokinen, C, Florida
Everyone and their hockey-hating doorknob of a second cousin knows about Jokinen and the NHL record he’ll set early next fall for the most regular-season games played without an appearance in the playoffs. Nevertheless, as evidenced by the seemingly annual interest in the Finn at the league’s trade deadline, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t be a valuable component for a Cup contender.
With Panthers GM Jacques Martin on the hot seat, Jokinen likely will get his first shot at the playoffs next year – either for Florida, or for the team he’s dealt to. And his contributions at that point in time will help define his on-ice reputation more than any of the wasted seasons that preceded it.
Marian Gaborik, RW, Minnesota
Full disclosure: I picked Gaborik in one of my playoff pools, so you can imagine how distressed I was to watch the Wild winger lay an egg (zero points and a minus-3) through Minnesota’s first four games against Colorado in the opening round.
Sure, the Slovak had an auspicious playoff debut for the Wild in 2002-03, (nine goals and 17 points in 18 games) but the pressure on him to produce post-season series wins has already thickened and will continue to until the soon-to-be restricted free agent leads Minnesota – or perhaps another franchise – through three rounds.
Patrick Marleau, C, San Jose
Like Thornton, Marleau plays for a Sharks team that has its own sizeable monkey to shoo away. Unlike his teammate, though, San Jose’s captain has been a member of the organization for a decade now – and thus is far more likely to be traded away should the franchise falter another time.
Marleau won’t turn 30 until the beginning of the NHL’s 2009-10 campaign, but the window on the prime of his career has begun to slowly close. He hasn’t been a playoff dog (55 points in 77 games, including three assists and four points in the Sharks’ opening four games against Calgary), but as he’ll tell you, points don’t mean anything unless Ws come along with them.
Mats Sundin, C, Toronto
Had he waived his no-trade clause with the Maple Leafs, Sundin could’ve had arguably his best opportunity to win a Cup this year. Instead, the Swede turned into Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, and wound up hurting his chances to win in Toronto next season.
Of anyone on this list, Sundin is least likely to win a Cup before he retires. While his loyalty to the Leafs is admirable on one level, he’ll have nobody to blame but himself if he finishes his career without a Cup.
Adam Proteau is The Hockey News’ online columnist and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his Ask Adam feature appears Tuesdays and Fridays, and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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