Quick Shifts: Why Joe Thornton is buzzing at the best time

Maple Leafs forward Alex Kerfoot discusses why growing his new beard was totally inspired by Joe Thornton, and says he'll stick with it until the end of this season, but will definitely be a one-and-done for him, because it feels horrible.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Shoutout to Ryan Miller on an incredible career.

1. Joe Thornton was beginning to look his age.

From mid-March through mid-April, the slam-dunk Hall of Famer went 17 games without contributing a point. He was a minus-5, bottom-six winger who wasn’t killing penalties and wasn’t chipping in on the power play.

During that rough stretch, he’d start most shifts in the offensive zone and there was still a much better chance he’d leave the game with zero shots on goal than two.

Was the rib injury still nagging? Were 23 years of hockey at the highest level tracking him down? Was Father Time tapping his watch?

Joe Thornton — that big, beautiful, bearded giant — simply smiled when it was gently suggested that he might consider taking some maintenance days to rest up for the playoff grind.

Not a chance.

“I feel great,” he said, upbeat. “On a buzzing meter from 1 to 10, I think I’m like a 10 and a half.”

Spring is in the air, and Jumbo has new life.

Although Thornton’s Leafs tenure began on the top line alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, he — like Jason Spezza before him — has embraced life in the bottom six like a bear hug.

He’s happy to adapt his identity to suit the club’s needs.

Consider: Thornton threw all of six hits in first 28 games as a Leaf. He’s thrown 22 hits in the past 10.

This week he became the oldest Maple Leaf in the organization’s 104-year history to light the lamp. Then he notched career assist No. 1,100.

He’s been fined and furious. Fun and fierce.

“He’s had a lot of emotion in the last few games. I think that the bench has really fed off that,” Alexander Kerfoot said.

“I mean, he’s always like that in the locker room. But to see him out there on the ice get animated, get into it with guys — he’s playing pretty physical out there as well. I think that when you see a guy like that going and doing those little things, it kinda spurs the group on to push a little extra as well.”

Joe Thornton, the oldest forward in the NHL, will carry a four-game point streak into Saturday’s game versus Vancouver. He’s averaging a penalty per game over that span as well.

He’s engaged.

“Joe has played really good hockey for us for a while now. Just another guy that I know his offensive contribution hasn’t been there, but Joe knows how to play and knows how to manage games when the game is on the line,” coach Sheldon Keefe says.

“He’s making a lot of really smart plays with the puck and taking care of it, and it’s allowing us to utilize our fourth line in important times in the game. And he’s really pushing and challenging the rest of the bench to be really good in those areas and in those moments.”

Marathoners are experts at pacing themselves. As weary as their bodies are, their spirits still muster a sprint to the finish.

2. Indeed, Kerfoot’s rather unruly beard — more befitting of a Harvard professor than a Harvard jock — is inspired by Joe Thornton.

“It sure is,” Kerfoot said. “Middle of a pandemic with Jumbo on the team, there’s no better time to kinda let it go.”

Kerfoot plans to maintain the chin rug until the Maple Leafs’ season ends… and then never grown one again.

“It’s horrible,” he said, twice. “It’s itchy. It’s uncomfortable. I look at myself in the mirror and I’m like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t look good.’ But it seems like there’s a couple of guys on the team have got it goin’, and I just decided to go with it and I’m going to stick with it.”

3. The Montreal Canadiens (22-8-9) are poised to scuffle their way into a playoff spot despite holding the 17th-best points percentage overall (.541) and worst points percentage of any team currently holding a playoff position.

In other words, better teams will miss.

For me, the Habs roster is simply a case of bad timing.

Like it or not, excellence in the salary cap world is cyclical. It’s about competitive windows and building a core whose individual windows align.

Montreal’s windows are mismatched to a harmful degree. The dominant windows of their Norris-candidate defenceman (Shea Weber) and Vezina-worthy goaltender (Carey Price) have passed, while the prime years of their promising centremen (Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi) have yet to arrive.

Because of that, it doesn’t matter that Marc Bergevin made some of the nicest and most expensive complementary additions over the off-season. Wingers Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson have had fantastic campaigns. Joel Edmundson is a fine defender. Jake Allen is one of the best backup goalies in the biz.

But you can trick out a sportscar with the shiniest rims and a state-of-the-art sound system. If the engine is flawed, it won’t go the distance.

4. Funny how one of the most important positions in sports — hockey goaltender — routinely has under-the-radar athletes coming out of nowhere to make an impact.

The latest is Providence call-up Jeremy Swayman, a fourth-round reach from the University of Maine who now finds his profile pic atop NHL.com’s leaderboard in the categories of goals-against average (1.57) and save percentage (.946).

By “profile pic,” of course, we mean empty silhouette — because why bother with a headshot when there is no way you’re getting an NHL look.

Yet when Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak went down at the same time, Swayman delivered a 5-2-0 performance in the NHL after a grand total of nine AHL outings.

“He’s been excellent for us. Hard to find fault in any of his games. He’s played real well,” coach Bruce Cassidy told reporters this week. He now has three goalies he can trust.

“So, it’s a good problem to have.”

The Bruins, pushing to secure a playoff berth, will start Swayman again Saturday.

With Halak and Rask both on expiring deals, Boston need only sign one established veteran in the summer. This is trending toward a smooth transition.

5. Watching warmups, I’m always curious to see which player is last to leave the ice. Hockey players are creatures of routine, and there’s no randomness to this.

In Toronto, for instance, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews are always the final two to skate off. In that order.

In the Before Times, Marner would flip a puck up to his palm and toss it to a young fan over the glass before stepping back to the room. These days, he still flips a puck into his hand, but just throws it against the glass. Sadly, it falls back to the ice. A souvenir unclaimed.

Apropos of nothing, here is the North Division All-Last-Off-From-Warmups Team:

Calgary – Jusso Valimaki
Edmonton – Josh Archibald
Montreal – Alexander Romanov
Ottawa – Chris Tierney
Toronto — Matthews
Vancouver – Quinn Hughes
Winnipeg – Mark Scheifele*

*also ensures he’s last to leave the ice between both teams

6. We followed up with Jason Spezza regarding his idea to pass the collection plate around the Maple Leafs room and contribute money to the working-class Marlies players, who took a significant salary hit during the pandemic.

“I don’t really want to get into too much, but obviously we’re a big family here,” Spezza said.

“We feel for those guys. I got to know a lot of those Marlies really well through training with them in the summer — great kids. You don’t like seeing anybody go through a tough time, and those guys are grinding in a tough season and following all the COVID rules for them and also so that we can have good success with avoiding COVID. We’re all part of the same organization and same team, and it’s important for us. So, we recognize those guys.”

7. When the Vince Lombardi isn’t being tossed around recklessly from boat to boat, it sure does serve as a fine mirror for sport’s more beautiful trophies…

8. Quote of the Week!

“At the end of the day, you can’t out-pizza the hut.” —Carolina forward Morgan Geekie, arguing the value of sticking to the Hurricanes’ game plan

9. It took a grand total of 1.33 seconds for Auston Matthews to knock down a puck that had ricocheted off Nick Suzuki’s leg, gather it on his blade and whip it past Jake Allen for a Wednesday eventual game-winner in Montreal.

“I dunno, it all kind of just happened fast,” Matthews said, downplaying his highlight. “Just saw the puck and tried to get it on my stick.”

The hand-eye coordination had Joe Thornton proclaiming Matthews “the elite of the elite.”

Jack Campbell reached for the proverbial popcorn: “Wow, what a treat to watch… He’s just showing he’s a world-class player. He shows it every night. That goal is just a little glimpse of what we get to see every night.”

So, it was interesting to hear a completely different take on the sequence from a coach’s perspective.

“I appreciate that he bailed out Nick Foligno for forcing a puck into the middle of the ice,” Sheldon Keefe said post-game. “That could have been a real bad turnover for us, and [Matthews] picked it off, turned it into a goal.

“To be honest, I still can’t say that I’ve seen it as I was not very impressed with the play before that. But I’m happy it worked out for us.”

10. Sniper-for-hire Ilya Kovalchuk is once again a free agent.

The 38-year-old hoisted his third Gagarin Cup this week, captaining Avangard Omsk to its first KHL title… and then, Friday, both sides agreed to terminate his contract.

Some familiar names celebrated alongside Kovalchuk.

Coach Bob Hartley can add the Gagarin Cup to a resume that already includes NHL, AHL, NLA, QMJHL championships.

Former NHLers Alexei Emelin, Nail Yakupov, Corbin Knight, Reid Boucher and Jiri Sekac have joined Kovalchuk in the celebrations.

The victory was especially sweet for Emelin, who came out to accept the Cup in street clothes just three weeks removed from his scare with liver failure.

11. On the topic of winners, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Cup rings — cut from 14-karat white gold and glittering with diamonds and genuine blue sapphires — are a sight to behold.

The details on these beauties are fantastic:

Personalized touches like the engraved words “Stockholm” — a reminder of the championship team’s critical team-bonding trip that kicked off 2019-20 — and “Gravy Train” are brilliant.

Gravy Train,” by SoundCloud rapper Yung Gravy, is the song the Bolts would blast after every victory. It’s their “Gloria.” It samples Maxine Nightingale’s 1975 smash “Right Back Where We Started From,” which hockey fans of a certain age will recall from the bar scene in Slap Shot.

12. Roberto Luongo is rapidly establishing himself as an executive to watch, and I’m here for it.

After being named an assistant GM, to St. Louis’s Doug Armstrong, for Team Canada’s 2022 Olympic squad in February, the beloved goaltender was crowned general manager for Canada’s world championship squad — which will head to Latvia later this month.

“This may sound silly or funny, but the thing that prompted me to go into management was playing fantasy sports,” Luongo said.

Drafting for his football and baseball teams, orchestrating trades and managing his daily lineups stoked Luongo’s competitive and strategic fires. The transition to the real deal has been relatively seamless. Of course, it helps that Luongo is an approachable, credible star who has built relationships across the NHL through his 19-year playing career.

“For me, it’s more serious now,” Luongo said. “Whether it’s the Florida Panthers or Team Canada, I’m always willing to help.”

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