Joe Thornton’s greatness has Sharks closer to Cup than ever

Tomas Hertl scored two goals and Martin Jones made 22 saves for the shutout and the San Jose Sharks defeated the St. Louis Blues in Game 3.

SAN JOSE — Joe Thornton was standing still with the puck, deep in an offensive corner, his back to the boards. Six-foot-five defenceman Colton Parayko, all arms and legs with a stick that stretches a city block, was closing fast.

Thornton is always thinking pass, but the passing lane to his target — the blade of Tomas Hertl’s stick — was about eight inches wide, framed between the back of the goal and the moving skates of St. Louis checker Jaden Schwartz.

And Hertl was moving too. So the target was more of a notion, really, than some tangible circle at a shooting range.

The physics on that pass is far beyond explanation from a sports writer.

“He (is an) amazing passer,” marveled Hertl, who would accept the perfect, bullet-like dish, walk out front and score. “I [am] just waiting. I saw him looking at me. I was waiting (for the) pass. I just try go to net and shoot.

“Just one of those instances where I just [saw] the blade,” shrugged Thornton, from behind a beard that is truly legendary. “You try to aim for it. Sometimes it hits, sometimes it doesn’t.

“It’s my job to get these guys the puck.”

The goal that ensued was a bit of a bleeder, as it snuck through Blues goalie Brian Elliott and into the net. But it was the result of a goalie who had no clue what was going on behind him, when suddenly Hertl came waltzing out from behind the net, unchecked.

It was the kind of pass from a player who has 964 assists (1,341 points) in 1,367 regular season games.

If you or me tried to make that pass? It’s a mistake.

When “Jumbo” makes it? Yeah, it’s not luck.

“I know I’m a great player,” Thornton would say later, in a different, relaxed context. And if you saw the pass for the 3-0 goal that salted this Game 3 away, you simply couldn’t argue.

Thornton is truly a great player. One of the premier passers of his generation and a lock for the Hockey Hall of Fame. Right up there as a passer with Steve Yzerman, Henrik Sedin, Adam Oates, Ronnie Francis — damned near Wayne Gretzky — you name the player.

And if you’re one of those folks who wishes to remind that he hasn’t won a Cup yet — yes, Boston, we’re talking to you — then hang around a while.

This 3-0 win puts San Jose ahead 2-1 in their Western Conference final. It’s the closest the Sharks, and Thornton, have ever been to a Stanley Cup.

That Thornton, at age 36, is still playing at an elite level does not surprise him in the slightest.

“I love to play,” he said. “I feel good playing with who I’m playing with, our team.

“I feel good — yeah, really good about my game. I feel good about my linemates’ game, our whole team game. I’m just really, really comfortable with it.”

Thornton and linemate “Little” Joe Pavelski each assisted on a pair of Hertl goals, and goalie Martin Jones notched his second consecutive shutout — a first in the playoff history of both the Blues and the Sharks.

“I like to pass. [Pavelski] likes to shoot,” explained Thornton. “Then you throw this big fella in there [Hertl], it’s a pretty good line.”

The scary thing? It’s hard to remember more than a couple of difficult saves by Jones Thursday. That’s how dominant San Jose has been, scoring seven straight goals since Jones allowed that sketchy Jori Lehtera goal that won Game 1 by a 2-1 score.

It’s been exclusively San Jose’s series since then, an issue that St. Louis will need to correct before Saturday’s Game 4. This Stanley Cup run by the Blues was rolling along pretty nicely until San Jose came along.

Now? It’s in trouble.

“We’ve put our top scoring players out there in this series so far and we’ve not been able to maintain pressure in the offensive zone,” said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. “That’s something that no one’s done against us. For whatever reason, we cannot control the play, even though we start 200 feet from our net.

“So that’s on me. I’m going to have to change tactics, do something completely different than we’ve done in the first two series because … we’re not hemming them in like we did the other two teams.”

Something has to happen because we know Thornton will produce. Zero goals won’t cut it.

That much, even a sports writer can figure out.

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