Third in the NHL in scoring this season, Thornton has been shadowed throughout the first three games of the playoffs by a player five inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter. He managed just two assists as the Devils took a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
His last chance to score could come in Tuesday night’s fourth game.
“You just rely on your linemates more,” Thornton said Monday. Madden is “just a great defensive player. He knows where to go and he’s played against a lot of the top centers. So he’s very cagey.”
Boston’s first line, centered by Thornton, has scored just one of the team’s three goals. Glen Murray, who had 44 regular-season goals, scored that in Game 2. But in Sunday’s 3-0 loss, he didn’t get a shot.
“Every time we get down there, they just seem to ice the puck,” said Thornton, who had 36 goals and 65 assists. “We don’t have too much time in the offensive zone.”
Madden even produced offensively Sunday with a goal and two assists.
“Usually, when you play well defensively in our system, you will contribute offensively,” Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said.
Thornton plans to continue getting in front of the net to screen Brodeur and hope some shots get through. He and Murray were among seven Bruins who rested instead of practicing on Monday, even though no injuries were reported.
Madden, the NHL’s top defensive forward in 2001-2002, knows what he’s up against.
“These three games, Joe’s had plenty of chances and is dominating down low at times,” he said. “We’re running into him, but he still hangs on to the puck. You don’t realize how strong he is, and trying to move him off the puck is a joke.”
So Madden tries to keep Thornton from getting the puck in the first place and has been fairly successful.
Bruins coach Mike O’Connell knows the only way to avoid a Madden-Thornton matchup is unacceptable.
“You could sit your best players, but we’re not going to do that,” he said. “There’s a couple of minor adjustments (Thornton) can probably make to help ease some of the coverage.”
On rare occasions when the Devils’ defense falters, Brodeur is ready. He posted his 14th career playoff shutout on Sunday in Game 3.
But the Bruins’ plan to avoid their second straight first-round exit is the same—get players in front of Brodeur so his vision is restricted, take lots of shots and pounce on rare rebounds.
“I fully expect him to play at the level he’s playing at,” said Jeff Hackett, who will be back in goal for Boston on Tuesday.
Hackett returned to the net Sunday after missing 12 games with a broken finger.
“We have to play our best to beat them,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for (Brodeur), but he’s human.”
Brodeur led the NHL in wins and shutouts and was fourth in goals-against average. In the playoffs, he’s given up three goals in three games.
But on March 12, he gave up three goals in 5:15 to Martin Lapointe in a 4-3 Boston win in which he was benched 10 minutes into the second period.
“That day every puck was getting through and they weren’t blocking the shots in front of the net,” Lapointe said. “Now it seems they’re making the conscious effort to block shots in front of him and he’s making the big saves.
“But he’s not unbeatable. We proved that.”
Brodeur is playing much better now and benefits from a solid defensive system in front of him.
“Every time that we did have a breakdown or a falloff somewhere, Marty certainly has saved it for us,” New Jersey coach Pat Burns said. “That’s playoff hockey. If you have a goaltender that can do that, you’re going to go a ways.”
And you’re going to frustrate the opponent.
The Bruins say they’re still confident and must play the same patient game that the Devils play. But their spirits might be sagging.
“It’s hard to be upbeat,” forward Rob Zamuner said. “But you have to be positive and to think of the good things we’re doing and build on those because if you get down on yourself you’re going to be out.”
No matter how Thornton plays.
“We’ve still got home ice,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll get away from Madden a couple of times out there.”