Joe Thornton, Power Play Ease Absence of Hertl

By Matthew Harrington

SAN JOSE, CA – On a day when Sharks fans received coal in their stockings it was a man known for his beard, larger-than-life figure and propensity for giving to others that delivered a present to San Jose fans. With the news that rookie-phenom, Youtube sensation and dream aficionado Tomas Hertl would require surgery on his knee, injured on a knee-on-knee hit by Los Angeles forward Dustin Brown last Thursday, Jumbo Joe delivered a Sharks victory over the red-hot Colorado Avalanche in a 5-4 shootout at the SAP Center Monday night. Jolly Old Saint Joe erased any fears of a dip in production without his usual running mate, wrapping up the second-straight Sharks win in games without Hertl with a bow on top.

The Sharks captain finished the night with what should be called a Joe Thornton hat trick, assisting on three of San Jose’s four regulation goals in 20:22 of ice time. His second assists of the night, coming on line-mate Brent Burns’ tenth goal of the season was an absolute work of art. Thornton curled along the boards to shake an Avalanche skater before feeding a streaking Burns with a backhand pass to the tape of Burns’ stick. Burns fired the trigger in the slot point-black to tie the game.

It’s not the first time Burns has been the prime beneficiaries of Thornton’s play this season, notching 19 points (10g, 9A) in just 24 games while skating primarily on a line with the Captain but it’s rookie Hertl’s chemistry with the two veteran forwards that had people taking notice. The youngster established himself as an offensive force with 15 goals already this season on the left wing beside Thornton and Burns. Now the Sharks, already struggling for offense amidst power play woes and a Logan Couture scoring slump faced the quandary of replacing another potent offensive weapon.

“I think you’ve seen it, we’re confident in our group,” said Brent Burns. “We have a lot of elite skill. Sometimes it’s just about switching it up.”

Coach Todd McLellan held open auditions to fill Hertl’s vacancy on the top trio on Saturday, shuffling lines in the Sharks 3-2 shootout defeat of the visiting Dallas Stars. While Jumbo Joe scored the game-winner in the skills competition Saturday, the more promising sign that the Sharks could sustain the loss of Hertl is Thornton’s connection with Joe Pavelski.

“He’s playing well,” praised Thornton of the Plover, Wisconsin Native. “He finds himself in front of the net wide open. He just has such a nice shot. Tonight he just complemented me and Burns so well. He’s such a smart player, he’s feeling it right now.”

How sizzling is Pavelski? Twice Pavelski and Thornton have combined to produce points in the standings out of nothing Pavelski received a Thornton pass for a dramatic goal to force a shoot-out Saturday night then again Monday the Thornton to Pavelski connected on late-game heroics, with diminutive Joe tying the game with Antti Niemi pulled and 20 seconds remaining in regulation.

“Pavs has been a real clutch player over the past two weeks,” said McLellan. “He’s the go-to guy. He’s been getting it done. We’re happy for him and we’re happy for us.”

McLellan is likely more satisfied with the sudden gelling of a power play that was empty on its last 13 opportunities. McLellan scrapped the stagnant groupings of five and introduced two new power play units Monday night, with the results paying immediate dividends to the tune of a 2-for-4 clip. Jason Demers and Matt Irwin each cashed in on man-advantage opportunities, with both blue liners scoring from point shots with traffic in front.

“That’s the reason, pretty much, why you win or lose in the NHL right now,” said Thornton. ”Your penalty kill has to be good and your power play has to be good. Our power play hasn’t been very good but we’ve been able to win a couple games without it but it’s something we needed.”

Other than recapping the play of the evening, McLellan played coy with the media regarding the more difficult questions regarding player confidence.

“It’s Christmas, let’s all go home and enjoy it,” ended McLellan. “I’ll answer those questions when we come back.”

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