San Jose Sharks captain Joe Thornton's(notes) name doesn't exactly spring to mind when discussing the NHL's best defensive forwards; which is understandable, because all the admirable qualities of Thornton's game are usually overshadowed by accusations that he's too passive or an underachiever. There probably isn't a star in this league that's had to work harder to offer a counterargument against deeply held critiques of his game, and the battle continues.
In reality, Thornton has led the Sharks in takeaways for the last five regular seasons, and the trend continues with nine in eight games in the 2011 playoffs. That's the gold-standard measure for defensive success when it comes to the Detroit Red Wings' Pavel Datsyuk(notes), who managed to get a Selke nod this season despite playing fewer games than Tim Thomas(notes).
On the draws, Thornton had a 54.4 winning percentage in the regular season on 1,240 faceoffs, and has upped that to 61.6 percent on 146 attempts in the postseason.
Game 3 between the Sharks and the Red Wings is Wednesday night, and San Jose leads the series 2-0 despite just one assist from Thornton thus far. Which is fine, because Jumbo's busy doing other things … like breaking up Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg(notes) with sterling defensive play as Game 3 looms.
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock confirmed on Wednesday that Detroit will divvy up its stars on two lines: Datsyuk with Johan Franzen(notes) and Tomas Holmstrom(notes), and Zetterberg with Todd Bertuzzi(notes) and Dan Cleary.
He also issued a challenge to his forwards after San Jose got the better of them in the opening games, via MLive:
"I want more out of our forwards," Babcock said. "I want us to spend more time in the offensive zone and sustain pressure. I think we can back-check harder and I think we can be harder on 50-50 pucks just all over.
"That's a challenge to all our forwards, and it doesn't matter who's playing with who."
Or whom they're playing against, one imagines, which is the issue: The line of Thornton, Patrick Marleau(notes) and Devin Setoguchi(notes) was a factor in necessitating this lineup change, and will be a factor again against whatever line it primarily faces.
Many of the Wings cited Thornton's evolution as a prime source of concern coming into the series, something that would adjust the way they played the Sharks. Defenseman Niklas Kronwall(notes) said Thornton has "become a different player," comparing him to Datsyuk.
The initial adjustments didn't work, so more are coming. According to the Detroit Free Press, Datsyuk and Zetterberg weren't playing on the same line at practice Tuesday.
The Wings' thought process in putting their two offensive superstars together went something like this: The Sharks have the better secondary scoring, but if their depth gets them two goals per game, our super line can get us three. Clearly Detroit wasn't counting on Thornton's line being quite as good at countering its top line as it has been.
Strange things are afoot with Joe Thornton in these playoffs. An overtime, series-clinching goal in Game 6 against the Los Angeles Kings. The recognition of his defensive prowess one year after finishing behind Alex Ovechkin (!) in the Selke voting.
If this run ends with his mitts on the Chalice … well, society might not be ready to consider that image yet. We're still getting over Hossa.