Jim Kelley
Thursday April 17th, 2008

I can't tell you with any kind of flaming shark-bite certainty which team is going to win the playoff series between the San Jose Sharks and the Calgary Flames (it's tied 2-2 going into tonight's contest).

I can tell you that I picked the Sharks in large part because of Joe Thornton.

I can also tell you that despite the claims of those who seem to want to ignore the realities of playoff non-performers like Ottawa's Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza, Thornton is doing the job for San Jose.

His goal in the dying seconds of Tuesday night's 3-2 win was his fifth point in the four games to date. He also had an assist on the first goal in that game.

Thornton has been a force and presence all series long and has taken a steady beating in front of the net and along the boards as the Flames pound him unmercifully. Calgary's thinking is that if they can wear down San Jose's spiritual and figurative leader, the rest of the Sharks will sink. It's not a bad strategy, but it's employed in part because of the constantly repeated message that Thornton can't, or won't, lift his game in the postseason.

That notion is a part of the reason why the Boston Bruins are said to have given up on him when they shipped him off to the Sharks three seasons ago. It's repeated not necessarily because it's true, but because if opponents can get Thornton, or at least his teammates, to believe that he's a postseason no- account, they have the all-important edge in hockey's favorite pastime (besides making up new rules to control Sean Avery): playoff mind games.

Thornton, who has the kind of easy-going personality that tends not to discourage that kind of talk, has been through this mill before. But the verbal riffs grew in both intensity and complexity after the Sharks blew an early three-goal lead and lost 4-3 on Sunday in a game that gave Calgary the sense that it can win this thing. That stunning reversal left the Sharks dealing with the two-headed monster question of what happened and where was Joe?

The Sharks take exception to that.

"Joe's been fine," defenseman Brian Campbell told reporters after that game.

Now, Campbell is a newbie in the San Jose lineup, but he's a longtime friend dating back to his time with Thornton in junior hockey, so his endorsement has to be taken with that knowledge in hand.

"Joe's played great," Campbell insisted. "Maybe Joe needs more out of us. Joe's always going to make guys look better, but those guys maybe need to make Joe look better."

There is truth to that, but it's not entirely accurate. Thornton has been "fine" and one can argue that a better effort -- particularly in the debacle of Game 3 when his teammates could have played with more poise -- would have made a difference, but Campbell leaves out an essential point: The pressure on Joe Thornton is coming largely from Joe Thornton.

"I thought after two periods (Tuesday) night, Joe Thornton was really struggling like I've never seen him struggle," said former Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Doug MacLean. "I thought he was feeling the pressure and I thought Calgary had a great chance to go up 3-1 .Joe was fighting it because of pressure, but him getting that goal that night, I think you're going to see a different Joe Thornton and that makes it real difficult for Calgary."

That's what a game-winning tally with 9.2 seconds left in a game can do for a player. A goal that changes the outcome of a game gives him a lift commensurate with getting the proverbial monkey off his back. Players talk all the time about visualizing success, but they do that to combat the ever-present vision of failure, especially when it's constantly laid out for them in the media and reflected in the eyes of their teammates, fans and the organizational leaders who pay their salaries.

One can argue that Thornton needed a breakthrough game in this series and it had to come when there was something meaningful on the line. Despite leading, or at least not playing from behind for almost 59 minutes, the Flames didn't win and that happened because Thornton went to the net and scored the goal that brought the series back to even.

Thornton has been around long enough to know the importance of something like that. Though he did play like he was skating with bricks on his feet through much of the contest, he also performed. He had an assist on the first goal, (the strength of his game), employed himself as a non-Avery screen that helped produce the second score, and delivered a physical game. It wasn't so much that he handed out the hits, but took them to make his plays.

He didn't have a let-someone-else-do-it outing. He played at a high level right to the final horn and his effort was rewarded with the game-winner. It was as they say, a "garbage goal," but it was also a game-winner and a series-saver that averted what would surely have been a disaster for the Sharks. When a team goes down 3-1 in a series, it almost never comes back.

This was a game in which the Flames had victory snatched away in much the same way that they had done it to the Sharks in Game Three. Calgary's star player, Jarome Iginla, gave his best effort and didn't win. Players understand those kinds of swings. They understand that in lifting the Sharks and himself, Thornton also lowered the confidence level of the Flames.

Of course, this series isn't over yet. The Flames have enough tenacity and resolve to make a stand even if the Sharks hold home ice in two of the remaining three games, should it go that far. But the Flames also know that they had a chance to take command in Calgary and it didn't happen because the big guy for the Sharks got the big goal at a time when his team needed it most.

You don't forget something like that when it happens to you.

Win or lose it will be a different Joe Thornton every night from here on out.

One can sense a swing in emotion in another Western series with upset capability.

The Nashville Predators, seemingly victims of not one but two bad calls regarding disallowed goals in the first two games in Detroit (both losses), have rebounded with a pair of wins at home to even the eight seed vs. one seed matchup and cause some serious problems for the Red Wings.

Chief among them was forcing coach Mike Babcock to decide whether to come back with Dominik Hasek in goal or turn to Chris Osgood. Hasek has started all four games and, at 43 years old, it could be expected that he would be given at least one game off in the series. But was now the time?

Nashville has never won a playoff game on the road and the Red Wings need to keep that dubious record intact now that the series is a best of three. Hasek has held a certain mastery over the Predators in Joe Louis Arena, but he also opened the door to Nashville's first win by allowing two goals in nine seconds in the third period of Game 3. Then he let in two in 32 seconds in Game 4 and gave way to Osgood, who will get the next start.

There are several dynamics at work here. For one, Hasek has always had a problem getting bad goals out of his head, and his tendency to give up a quick score after he's been tagged for a goal he thought he should have stopped goes back to his days in Buffalo and is something he's never truly shaken.

Also, the goaltending coach for the Predators is Mitch Korn, who was the consultant when he and Hasek were in Buffalo. No one in the NHL knows the strengths and weaknesses of The Dominator better than Korn and you can be certain that he has pointed out both sides to the Preds ,who seem to have the Detroit goalie solved.

In addition, Hasek, given his age and health, has never played more than four consecutive games this season. Add it all up and the Predators will see Osgood in Game 5. But if they break through for their first road win ever in the playoffs, well, then Babcock really has a problem.

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