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ON HOCKEY

Set up for failure, Thornton got the last laugh

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / February 11, 2009
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Joe Thornton in teal looked very much like the Joe Thornton who spent so many years here in black and gold. Jumbo Joe executed his game, looked for passes, made passes, threaded them through crowds, and even scored a goal. Although the one he knocked home last night in San Jose’s 5-2 victory over the Bruins came directly off his left skate, a redirect of a Devin Setoguchi backhand feed that, frankly, looked as if the sensational young winger plagiarized it from Thornton's book of sweet 'n' juicy setups.

Good things happen around the net, which has rarely, if ever, been Thornton's domain. He much prefers the side wall, his towering frame backed up to the boards, allowing him full view of the offensive slot, complete range to work. That's his wheelhouse, and last night the Bruins did a very good job of keeping him out of his comfort zone, explaining perhaps why he was cruising through the slot and looking for a feed midway through the third period when he booted home the backbreaking two-goal lead.

"They're a good team, a darned good team," said the former Bruins captain, playing Causeway Street for only the second time since being dealt to the Sharks on Nov. 30, 2005. "That's probably one of the best teams we've played all year."

Thornton was by no means invisible through the night. It would be hard for the 6-foot-4-inch pivot, the face of the Boston franchise for seven-plus seasons, to blend in with the crowd, get lost among all the advertising along the side boards. But he did not jump out like, say, his winger Patrick Marleau, who snapped home his 27th goal of the season and added a pair of assists (including one on Thornton's goal). Nor did he dazzle like Ryane Clowe, who picked up helpers on San Jose’s first, second, and third goals.

After all these years, Thornton is Thornton, a difference-maker when he's allowed to work his setup wand, but capable of being denied when the opposition has the resources to hack away at his game all night. The Bruins were able to do that and then some for the first half last night, but a combination of their own mounting injuries and San Jose's impressive depth eventually sent the Eastern Conference leaders to their room as if ordered by demanding, daunting parents.

"We didn't have too many answers early on," said Thornton, held to only two shots for the night, registering one of them with his left boot.

"Then in the second half, the ice kind of tilted."

Thornton was a non-factor in the first period, which the Bruins controlled on the scoreboard (2-1) and in terms of overall play (13-6 shot advantage). Noticeably tired over the weekend, especially during their 4-3 loss to the Flyers Saturday, the Bruins were much sharper against Team Teal. Had they been able to sustain that pace, as they have much of the season until recently, they could have wrapped up the Sharks for a league-high 40th win of the season.

The Garden crowd, always on Thornton's side during his years here, booed the big guy each time he touched the puck during a Sharks power play early in the period. They booed him again - almost cordially, or at least duty-bound - when he knocked in the 4-2 lead.

"They've got great fans here," said Thornton, treated as the crown prince of Causeway from the day he arrived as the No. 1 pick in the 1997 draft, his acolytes to this day still e-mailing local columnists with hate mail over his departure. "There's been a buzz around here [about the game] since Saturday night."

But it was Milan Lucic, potting a pair in the first period, who captured the sellout crowd's greatest attention. He knocked home his first for the 1-0 lead at 3:58, then broke a 1-1 deadlock with No. 2 at 14:54. Had he had his stick flush to the ice earlier in the period, he might have left the period with a hat trick. A third Lucic goal that early almost assuredly would have made for a different outcome.

Thornton was held off the board again in the second period, the Bruins maintaining their 2-1 lead through the 20 minutes. At least Thornton was able to remain in the game, something Boston forwards couldn't master.

Late in the first period, Petteri Nokelainen was finished for the night when he took a Dan Boyle stick around the right eye, sending the Finnish winger off the ice with blood dripping down his cheek. With 9:15 to go in the second period, Chuck Kobasew appeared to wrench a knee in a center-ice collision with Doug Murray, and though he made it back by the end of the period, the former Boston College winger wasn't very effective.

With 6:20 gone in the second, after a shift in which the Sharks nearly moved to a 3-2 lead, Boston's Shawn Thornton and Jumbo Joe met up at the Boston bench. The two locked up briefly, and it appeared for a moment they might trade a punch or two, but they ultimately released and went to their respective benches. No family feud (perhaps because they aren't family?).

Otherwise, the 60 minutes passed without anyone in black and gold throwing Thornton as much as a dirty look.

Did a win over Boston make the night any more special?

"I don't think so," Thornton said. "We take it as a challenge. We've been doing that all year long, just focusing on every game."

Same ol' Joe. Eyes straight ahead, a smile perpetually on his face. Mellow, polite, and loving life as if he were that giant cartoon character forever hovering over the Thanksgiving Day parade.

He patiently answered a slew of questions, in two separate waves of reporters, then departed for his shower. Spotting a familiar face in the crowd, that of a local columnist who once wrote that he should surrender the Bruins captaincy, for his own good and that of the team, he walked over and extended his hand.

"Good to see you," he said, exchanging a handshake. And he flashed that Jumbo Joe smile.

After all, it's a good life.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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