EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 20, 2007

So what else is new? Thornton always lays an egg in the big games

Brian Messenger

Getting shut out on home ice at any level of competitive hockey is insulting. In the NHL playoffs - and in an elimination game no less - not scoring is simply not an option.

But it's become a bit of a habit for former Bruins captain Joe Thornton and the San Jose Sharks, who were sent sunbathing by the Detroit Red Wings earlier this month after losing three straight games in their second-round playoff series.

While the 27-year-old Thornton, who is due $6.6 million this year, should have no trouble enjoying a well-deserved summer vacation, even bright California sunshine can't blot out the writing on the wall: With big-time talent and a salary to match, the franchise centerman has wavered when push comes to shove in the playoffs.

Jumbo Joe & Co. were blanked 2-0 in deciding Game 6 at the Shark Tank on May 7 - a familiar score if you know Thornton's recent postseason history.

Hard to imagine, but re-signing Thornton after next season could be a risky move for San Jose. In the salary-cap era, what ultimate worth is tying up a potentially $8-million-a-year man to a long-term deal - one who can give you a point-a-game, but can't lead you to victory come May and June?

Most would agree Thornton is among the top handful of players in the entire world. If he wracks up another 90-plus assists next season like he did the last two, his future paychecks will certainly reflect that perception.

These days, however, real success in the NHL is just as much about managing money as it is winning scoring titles, which Thornton did last year after being traded by the Bruins in November 2005 - a mere two months into a three-year, $20 million contract.

But recall, if you will, San Jose's final go-round last post-season. The Sharks, on a roll after acquiring Thornton from Boston, dispatched Nashville in five before winning the first two games of the conference semis against Edmonton.

What happened next also happened this spring: San Jose blew a series lead and dropped consecutive contests on their way to early elimination. The final score of series-deciding Game 6? You guessed it: 2-0.

For good measure, the last time the B's qualified for hockey's annual chase for the chalice it was an injured Thornton captaining them to a 3-1 series lead over rival Montreal.

Boston's 2003-04 season would end in the first round of the playoffs after three straight defeats, the icing on the cake an excruciating 2-0 Game 7 shutout at home.

For three playoffs in a row, teams led by Thornton - a former captain and current alternate - couldn't stop the bleeding. Couldn't help but be wallflowers when their backs were flush against the dasher. Couldn't even score a goal in an elimination game.

Any self-respecting hockey player would be insulted.

Brian Messenger is an Eagle-Tribune reporter.