SAN JOSE – The look on Joe Thornton’s face was a brilliant mixture of joy and disbelief.
Hockey’s most beloved greybeard had just watched a linemate 16 years his junior dance along the opposition’s blue line, sidestep a hit and snap home one of the prettier goals of these playoffs.
As he joined the group hug with mouth agape, the 39-year-old shared just how impressed he was with the kid as 17,500 frenzied fans at SAP Center continued the party they’d started three nights earlier.
“What a beauty – just a beautiful goal,” said Thornton following Kevin Labanc’s dirty dangle punctuated with a dagger. “He’s found some confidence from Game 7 (against Vegas) and continued tonight. Just a world-class goal, what else can I say.”
By night’s end Thornton, could hardly wipe that grin off his face as his line with Labanc and Marcus Sorensen chipped in with three Sharks goals in a 5-2 series-opening win over upstart Colorado.
Thornton, the man credited for emotionally spurring on the four-goal Pavelski Payback late Tuesday night against Vegas, kick-started a three-goal spree by his line to put the Sharks ahead for good late in the second period.
And they did it on the heels of killing off a four-minute penalty to Brenden Dillon while down 2-1, proving to Vegas and everyone else that lengthy power plays by the opposition can, ahem, be overcome.
“That was a game-changer – we needed that,” said Sharks coach Pete DeBoer of the second-period penalty kill Thornton followed with his second goal of the spring. “We talked going into the playoffs and after the first round that our special teams are going to have to win us games. We won one with the power play last game, and I thought our penalty kill was a big part of the win tonight.
“I’ve seen these situations where you come off an emotional win like that and you lose the first game of the next series and then you’re chasing the series. So we knew the importance of tonight, especially being at home, and wanted to get the job done and did enough to get it done. But we know we’re going to have to be better, and I think we will be next game.”
Thornton converted a pass by Sorenson on a two-on-one midway through the game that knotted the score 2-2, sparking a shocked celebration by the bearded veteran bidding to join Ray Bourque as second NHLer to win his first Cup after eclipsing the 1,400-point mark.
Within nine minutes, Labanc scored his highlight-reel snipe after deftly avoiding what would have been a huge hit by Mikko Rantanen along the blue line.
“I saw Rantanen kind of take the body and not the puck so he kind of left a little opening in between his legs, I got it through, faked the shot and went high-glove,” said Labanc, 23. “We just outworked them. I think we were a little bit tired because it was a long series with Vegas, but we kind of got going and were hard to play against. We took away the speed of Rantanen and (Nathan) MacKinnon and those guys.”
With one minute left in the second, a fortuitous bounce off Cale Makar gave Thornton’s beard brother, Brent Burns a goal to put the hosts up 4-2.
Burns and Thornton are two of four players left in the playoffs with over 1,000 games and no Stanley Cup to show for it. The others are Dallas’ Jason Spezza and Blues’ Jay Bouwmeester.
Burns finished the game as the first Sharks defenceman to post four points in a playoff game, eclipsing Dan Boyle as the franchise’s all-time leading playoff scorer amongst blueliners.
It marked the first time in 18 starts Avs goalie Philipp Grubauer had surrendered more than three goals.
The emergence of Thornton’s line came at a time when many wondered how the Sharks would respond to the loss of captain Joe Pavelski, whose head injury in Game 7 against Vegas has prevented him from skating since.
“He’s been around quite a bit, too, so we like seeing him here,” said Thornton of Pavelski. “He’s such a big part of this city and this team. We’re trying to win as many games as we can so we can see him back on the ice. We just keep winning and hopefully he gets healthy and can join us at some point.”
The man inserted onto the top line in Pavelski’s absence, Gustav Nyquist, scored on a Burns rebound earlier in the night following a big faceoff win by Logan Couture.
The speed of the Avs played prominently in the game as they scored two minutes into the game following a speedy rush by Makar that ended with a Gabriel Bourque rebound sent past Martin Jones. Their quickness also applied pressure leading to an early second period penalty Colin Wilson capitalized on to put the wild card Avs up 2-1, prompting the comeback.
“I think the Vegas series brought us that much closer together, going through three elimination games,” said Labanc, who has learned plenty under Thornton’s tutelage. “We’re a tight group and it’s going to be hard to stop us.”
Jones, whose worst season was redeemed with three stellar winning efforts to round out the Vegas series, bounced back with a pair of huge saves on Carl Soderberg in alone that kept the game 1-1 after one.
All told Jones, had 26 saves in a game that had third-line Thornton earning kudos as the first star after scoring once, adding an assist and finishing plus-3 in almost 14 minutes of action. His assist was the 100th of his playoff career, making him the 24th player in NHL history and third active skater to reach that mark.
MacKinnon, who was the focal point of the series coming in off his stellar performance against the Calgary Flames, was checked closely by the Sharks, who limited Great Nate to a power-play assist on Wilson’s goal.
Game 2 goes Sunday afternoon at 4:30 Pacific time.