In Game 4, Kings find Sharks’ Joe Thornton an unstoppable force
The one thing at which the Kings had been so skilled during their run to the Stanley Cup last year and this current postseason was not letting the opposition’s best player beat them.
And that’s what was unique about Game 4 against the San Jose Sharks.
Sharks center Joe Thornton caught a wave Tuesday night and brought his teammates along for the ride, leading San Jose to a 2-1 victory against the Kings at HP Pavilion. The Western Conference semifinal series is tied 2-2, with Game 5 Thursday night at Staples Center.
Thornton, who has been on a line with Brent Burns and TJ Galiardi, was the best player on the ice in the first period of Game 4. He set up a goal, won his first four faceoffs in the opening 10 minutes and lost only one of seven faceoffs in an opening period he thoroughly dominated.
The NHL public relations staff puts out a daily summary called Morning Stanley Cup of Joe — perhaps it should be renamed Morning Cup of Joe Thornton — and produced an eye-popping statistic. In the playoffs, Thornton has been on the ice for the Sharks’ 17 goals for and only one against.
Until Game 4, the Kings did a decent job of minimizing Thornton’s impact. He had plenty of time with the puck and a ton of time in the offensive zone, but they kept him pushed to the outside.
That playbook seems to have gone missing Tuesday night.
“Certainly during last year’s run we were able to minimize the impact of top players on the opposition, and that’s the big part of winning a series,” veteran Kings defenseman Rob Scuderi said Wednesday after practice. “I thought we did a great job of that in the St. Louis series even in the games we lost.
“Joe Thornton is a little more of a dynamic player than we played in the first round, no knock on St. Louis,” Scuderi said. “That’s just the type of player he is. He’s big. He’s tough to get the puck away from.”
Even when the Kings take away one or two of his options, Thornton often manages to discover a third.
“When you limit his options, he seems to find another way out,” Scuderi said. “If we’re going to win this series, it’s up to us to try to box him in and minimize his input.”
Thornton has one goal and eight assists, five coming on the power play, in eight playoff games. His ice time has hovered around the 20-minute mark per game, the high of 23:15 coming in the Game 4 overtime finale of the Vancouver series.
Kings defenseman Robyn Regehr played against Thornton in the 2008 playoffs when Regehr was with the Calgary Flames. San Jose won that first-round series in seven hard-fought games.
“He uses his body quite well when he does get the puck in the offensive zone and protecting it,” Regehr said. “He’s a very good passer, a very dangerous passer and if you give him time and a lot of space out there, he’s going to make plays.
“For us, whoever is playing against him out there — whether it’s power play or even strength — you’ve got to make sure you pressure him, get him stopped up, get him in a corner, try to get a little body on him,” he said. “Don’t let him play his game or get to the back of the net.”
Thornton was able to fluster and frustrate the Mike Richards line through the early stages of Game 4 before the Kings mustered some pushback.
Defenseman Matt Greene, who played in his first game of these playoffs in Game 4, put Thornton’s influence in pragmatic terms.
“He’s going to have games where he controls the play,” Greene said. “You’ve just got to limit that.”
Kings captain Dustin Brown, who was on the third line at practice Wednesday with center Trevor Lewis and Dwight King, took it beyond trying to limit Thornton’s time and space.
“We need to try to limit their time down there, and the best way to do that is to play in the other end,” Brown said. “I’m pretty sure they don’t want to play there. No offensive team wants to play in the D-zone. We haven’t made them play enough D.”
Galiardi created a bit of controversy before Game 5 when he suggested that Kings goalie Jonathan Quick was guilty of embellishment, trying to draw penalties.
Galiardi told the San Jose Mercury News: “You skate by and you don’t even touch him or you barely even touch him and he’s throwing his hands in the air. So that’s one of those things. It’s playoffs. Everyone’s trying to draw a penalty. Whatever.”
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