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Jumbo Joe Thornton gets the last laugh in Boston

02.10.09 at 11:20 pm ET
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The script had a deliciously Boston flavor to it after the first two periods of play last night, but Jumbo Joe Thornton got the last surfer boy chuckle in a 5-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks at a jazzed up TD Banknorth Garden.

Milan Lucic banked himself a pair of blue-collar goals in the first period to push the Bruins out to a 2-1 lead, and the Bruins had their new punch ‘em out/light ‘em up face on the franchise staring down their old hockey hero in the NHL “Best of the Best” showdown. Looch had two goals, four bone-shattering hits and a +2 after two periods of play, and Thornton was doing his best “vintage 2003-04 big game no-show” impression with a -1, one measly shot on net and a generally invisible game in this second Hub homecoming.

But everything turned in the fateful third period. Up became down, and down became up. The Bruins, normally dominant in the final period, coughed up four goals over the final 20 minutes and looked like a weary and beaten team with the rest of the hockey world watching. 

A B’s team that has prided itself on being tough to play against suddenly lost a pair of forwards (Petteri Nokelainen, Chuck Kobasew) to injury and their hockey mojo — as the inimitable Dave Lewis would put it — seemed to shrink back before San Jose’s challenge. The Bruins managed only seven shots despite a pair of power play opportunities during a limp third period performance, and watched as the Sharks poured it on with four unanswered goals en route to Boston’s worst defeat of the season.

“Our third period has been our best period most of the year,” said Marc Savard. “It’s really frustrating. It’s almost…I’m mad right now. I’m really mad right now because we had a chance to set a statement tonight here, and we let it slip in 20 minutes of play. It’s frustrating, I think, to all of us.”

The backbreaker in this frozen sheet horror show, you ask?

That would the insurance marker scored by the once-invisible Jumbo Joe, who picked the exact opportune time to drop his 6-foot-4, 235-pound body right in front of the net with 9:48 to go in the third period. Devin Setoguchi whistled a pass from the corner that simply deflected off Thornton’s shimmering skate blade and then slipped between Tim Thomas‘ pads.

“I think midway through the game we kind of turned it on and when we do that team can’t handle us,” said Thornton in perfect bulletin board form. “That’s what you saw tonight. Just our size, our speed, everything. You can’t handle the Sharks for 60 minutes.”

It was the perfect storm of absurdity for the Boston hockey fan. They watched their former No. 1 draft pick and Bruins poster boy venture to the treacherous middle — a place where he would never set up as a member of the Black and Gold — and get rewarded with the fickle bounce of a puck that both cinched the game and gave the Big Lug his cathartic Boston moment — a cherry on top of the puck sundae that he had surely always craved while surfing along the Pacific Ocean in lovely San Jose.

While the goal clearly brought a smile to the happy-go-lucky face of the former Bruins star, it probably brought a good faction of the B’s fandom running for some Puck Pepto-Bismol with the familiar sinking feeling in their collective stomachs. Instead of the deja vu appearance of Thornton prepping for his next playoff no-show, the Bruins are instead a team that’s beginning to show cracks and weakness where once they appeared young, strong and invincible.

The numbers don’t lie and younger players like David Krejci, Blake Wheeler and Phil Kessel are continuing to recede to the background as the NHL seasons turns into the final stretch — and the hockey-playing men go out hunting for playoff spots. Boston’s power play has been sapped of its energy over the nine-game stretch they just completed against playoff-caliber opponents, and they’ve been held without a power play score in six of their last seven games. The B’s man advantage has gone 2-for-30 during that seven-game stretch, which gives them a 6.7 percent success rate and has seen them drop from a 25 percent success rate to 23.3 in just nine games. 

So much for Jack Edwards’ “Peach Fuzz” power play that shocked and amazed over the first four months of the NHL season.

“I don’t think we’re moving the puck with enough authority, we’re not moving it quick enough and we’re definitely not strong enough on the puck,” said Julien. “You’ve got to work the PK. Those three things aren’t happening right now.”

The numbers weren’t too pretty for the young players that have looked altogether too invisible and timid on the puck as the physicality has increased. To wit:

*David Krejci — 17:01 of ice time, no points, -1 for the game, and zero shots on net.

*Blake Wheeler — 13:07 of ice time, no points, and four shots on net.

*Phil Kessel — 19:43 of ice time, no points, and three shots on net.

That trio certainly weren’t the only players that couldn’t distinguish themselves in the ultimate “statement  game” the Bruins will play during the regular season — Patrice Bergeron, P.J. Axelsson and Stephane Yelle had a pretty rough ride of it as well — but they simply appeared overmatched amongst the tall trees within the big-bodied Sharks lineup. It’s a stark contrast to a first half that saw them set the NHL world on their ear, and it’s something that will need to change before the ultimate hockey tournament begins in April. 

“I think obviously with our youth that we’re still learning,” said defenseman Aaron Ward. “With our team, we’ve obviously got some lessons to learn with our competition. Big game against Jersey coming up, and we have to realize that every game is important whether or not it’s in a national level like it was today or it’s a game against a conference foe that means a lot more in the standings.”

Medical Ward: Petteri Nokelainen was hit in the eye with a high stick by Sharks D-man Dan Boyle at the end of the first period, and many of his teammates and coaches were voicing concern after the game while the Finnish forward was getting treatment at a nearby hospital. “It’s an eye injury and I don’t think it looks very good right now,” said B’s coach Claude Julien.

Chuck Kobasew managed to play 14:35, but suffered both a lower body and upper body injury in the second and third periods.

B’s Player of the Game: Milan Lucic had nothing to hang his head about after the game as he made himself a physical presence during the game and scored both of Boston’s goals in the first period. Looch would have been hailed as a hero had the Bruins answered San Jose’s call to hockey arms in the third period.

Goat Horns:  Patrice Bergeron took Boston’s only penalty, which led to a power play goal, was a -2 for the evening, wasn’t a factor while running the point on the first power play, lost 8 of 11 faceoffs in a forgettable night for the B’s from the dot and just didn’t look strong on the puck amidst the playoff intensity. There was plenty to go around in this category, however.

Turning Point: Both referees Chris Rooney Don Van Massenhoven missed a high sticking call on Dan Boyle that ripped open a cut around Petteri Nokelainen’s right eye at the end of the first period — an injury that sent Nokelainen to the hospital. The B’s missed out an obvious four minute power play for the high-stick that drew blood, and the Sharks began stealing momentum away from a B’s team with a shortened bench.

Read More: Blake Wheeler, Boston Bruins, Claude Julien, David Krejci
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